The verdict is in: Drug policy needs overhaul
NORMALLY, I don't do stats. Numbers can be manipulated to say whatever you want them to say. But these facts speak for themselves:
At the end of 1980, Hawaii had 926 incarcerated people. By the end of 2006, there were 6,251 in prison.
Of those, two-thirds were between the ages of 25 and 44, according to the Public Safety Department 2006 Annual Report. Twelve percent were under the age of 25.
It gets sadder. The Native Hawaiian Databook says 37 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women serving time in 2005 were identified as Hawaiians.
Those sobering statistics were included in a press release about an important forum that was held on July 17 and which got scant media attention.
AIRING THEIR VIEWS
The panel discussion "Are We Winning the Drug War?" will air on public access television:
» When: 9:30 p.m., Aug. 16
» Where: Olelo, Ch. 49
» Panelists: Honolulu First Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm; California Superior Court Judge James P. Gray; Eric Sterling, president, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.
It was hosted by the state House Judiciary Committee, and cosponsored by the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, ACLU Hawaii and Community Alliance on Prisons. The topic was, "Are We Winning the Drug War?" But much of the talk was related to Hawaii's prison problem, and rightly so. Experts say 80 percent of the crimes committed here involve alcohol or drugs.
In the past month, there have been news stories about shipping inmates to the mainland vs. building another prison in the islands. Either way, it's expensive. Hawaii pays $50 million a year to the Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit company that runs 65 facilities in 19 states. Having seen what it costs to put up a single traffic light, I shudder to think what the price tag on a prison would be.
Yet you hear precious little from the governor's office or chief of police about the root cause of the prison population boom. They won't connect the dots for you, so I will.
Go back to the top statistic. What happened between 1980 and the present?
Answer: mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Panelist Eric Sterling, former counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary during the 1980s, helped write those laws. He now says it was the "greatest mistake" of his life. As president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, he travels the country speaking out against drug prohibition as being ineffective and inhumane.
Also on the panel was Judge James Gray, author of "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed, and What We Can Do About it." He was a Navy attorney and refers to himself as a former "drug warrior." Even though he's a conservative judge in California's conservative Orange County, he firmly believes "zero tolerance makes zero sense."
NEITHER Sterling nor Gray is a bleeding-heart liberal type. But when they speak about the human costs of the drug war, it's clear how personal this cause is for both of them.
It's personal for Sterling because the laws he drafted were a result of political and public pressure on Congress to get tough on drugs, without any regard for what it would do to addicts or casual users. The drug weight numbers they used to determine mandatory sentencing guidelines were sometimes "pulled out of the air," he said. He spoke about riding with police years later, and learning that cops went out of their way to bust low-level drug users because they earned extra pay for going to court when those cases came up. "Collars for dollars," he called it.
Gray said the "winners" in this war are drug dealers, law enforcement and security services, the growing prison industry and politicians. In this perversely symbiotic relationship, crime does pay. When police or federal agents seize large quantities of drugs, the price of that drug goes up on the street, which results in addicts committing more crimes to make enough money to support their drug habit. Politicians then get re-elected by talking tough on crime. It's a vicious cycle, perpetuated by the supply and demand economics of the black market. End result: There are now 2.2 million people in American prisons today, more than half for drug-related crimes.
But Gray says there are alternatives that work: "honest" education; treatment and pre- vention; legalizing certain drugs; and holding individuals accountable for their actions. "I can go home and have a mind-altering substance after work -- a cocktail. But I can't go out and drive if I'm drunk. Marijuana should be treated the same way as alcohol," he said, emphasizing that he himself doesn't toke up.
Gray added a final thought: "We have lost more of our civil liberties over the war on drugs than from anything else in our country's history. The Founding Fathers would roll over in their graves."
Perhaps. But I think our Founders also would be proud of men like Gray and Sterling who are willing to admit they were wrong to prosecute an unwinnable war against drugs. By working for sensible reform, they reaffirm that democracy works if we cast aside our cynicism and take a stand.
Rich Figel is a screenwriter who lives in Kailua. He has been sober for 18 years. His column appears periodically in the Insight section. firstname.lastname@example.org