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StarBulletin.com

Crime reform would help raise revenue


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POSTED: Tuesday, October 27, 2009

There are just two ways to deal with a sharp decrease in state revenues: Cut programs and find new sources of income.

Gov. Linda Lingle has shown how adept she is at cutting vital programs such as public education and health care and imposing layoffs and furloughing teachers and other workers. Education of our kids—in a state where public education seems to lag behind other states and desperately needs greater support—is being sacrificed, as are a variety of other essential programs intended to help the poor, the sick, the infirm and the aged.

Assuming for the moment that such sacrifices are fiscally justifiable under current economic conditions, where is the effort to find new sources of income to replace those we have lost? We have already noticed that the governor has not been aggressively seeking to replace lost revenues with funds from the president's stimulus package, which could be an important new source of income for public education and health. But neither Gov. Lingle, nor our Legislature, seem to be aggressively seeking other ways to raise income or, in the case of the Hawaii film industry, for example, to maintain strong sources of Hawaii's past income. This is a tragic failure.

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There are many ways to raise revenues, from simply increasing tax rates on the very wealthy, temporarily raising the excise tax rate, or borrowing from the Hurricane Relief Fund, to name a few. Whatever problems these engender, they are not nearly as great as the problems being caused by reducing public education, public services and health care for the poor. Fortunately, at least a couple of potential income sources are not only not problematic, but are likely to serve justice and substantially reduce public harm. These are:

» Reforming our out-of-control prison policies. At enormous cost, including serious adverse effects on their children and families, we are imprisoning thousands of our fellow citizens who represent no significant threat to others and/or can be effectively restrained or controlled by means other than imprisonment. In 1980 we had an inmate population of 926. In 2008 the number had increased to 6,014! A substantial proportion of that population is imprisoned because of drug abuse. Altogether too many of them are mothers, often of young children. However, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse has stated: “;Drug addiction is a brain disease that affects behavior.”; NIDA also noted that “;drug abuse treatment is cost effective in reducing drug use and bringing about associated health care, crime, and incarceration cost savings.”;

A very recent study by professors Thomas Lengyel, University of Denver, and Marilyn Brown, University of Hawaii-Hilo, concludes that huge savings could be achieved by relying on substance abuse treatment in appropriate cases rather than incarceration. As the authors pointed out:

“;The state's first year savings from diverting 50 percent of the (197 drug offenders released in 2006) to intensive substance abuse treatment amounts to a little more than $4.1 million. Savings over the average length of stay for the study cohort are much larger, summing to $14.4 million for the state alone, and growing to $57.5 million when all social costs are recognized.”;

One of the advantages of reforming prison policies is that it can be achieved within our current legal milieu. No significant change of federal or Hawaii law would be required.

>> Reforming our medical marijuana laws and decriminalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana use.

As economist Lawrence W. Boyd, Ph.D. (UH-West Oahu) concluded in a recent study, economic analysis of current public policies on marijuana reveals that Hawaii state and county governments could reap up to $33 million annually in new revenues and cost savings, if tax and regulatory policies were to replace law enforcement to control marijuana distribution. Furthermore, research indicates that enforcement expenditures of up to $10 million each year statewide have failed to reduce the amount of marijuana available in Hawaii.

While decriminalizing marijuana might require a parallel change of federal law, such a law is currently being considered by Congress. Our elected officials should line up behind it. The fact is that prohibition of marijuana, like prohibition of alcohol (which was removed about 75 years ago by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution) just doesn't work and causes enormous and unjustified costs.

Removing the deficiencies in Hawaii's compassionate medical marijuana laws would not produce savings equivalent to taxing and regulating marijuana, but would reduce unnecessary law enforcement costs and provide pain relief to suffering citizens. The current law has many deficiencies that the Hawaii Legislature agreed should be studied by a task force. Unfortunately, the governor has refused to support the study, despite her campaign promise to support the law.

We believe our keiki are our most precious resource—but we do not always act in their best interests. In the interest of all of our citizens, and especially our keiki, it is about time for the governor and the Legislature to become “;smart on crime.”;