The War We are Losing at Home

By Malachi Bouch, Contributor

The War on Drugs, since its inception in 1971, has cost upwards of 1 trillion dollars, as well as resulting in more than 45 million arrests. In that time illegal drug use has remained unchanged (Jarecki, et al 0:08). Additionally the United States, making up only 5% of the world’s population, has a staggering 25% of the world’s inmates (Song). These disproportionate and disturbing statistics point towards a deeper problem. Once we concede the War on Drugs has been a failure, we have to start solving the problems it has created. The most important problem is within America’s prison systems; out of our 6 million prisoners, 95% will be released, but 67% will end up back in the prison system within 3 years of their release (Song). The 67% who end up back in the prison system are considered part of America’s recidivism, which is a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. Recidivism is measured by criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release” (National Institute of Justice). With 67% of our prison population ending up back in the prison system within 3 years, we have to admit something is wrong and it isn’t performing effectively. Why, if we are going to eventually release these prisoners, aren’t we changing something? Prisons in the United States, not only should, but ought to prioritize rehabilitation and transition programs in order to reduce recidivism rates.

One argument contends that since these people are committing crimes, we should just let them continue to stay in prison and serve their punishments. Now, while it is true that there are some circumstances where no amount of rehabilitation will stop the cycle of crime, and circumstances which warrant life imprisonment, we can’t judge the entire population off of these few serious criminals. Not only that but the current criminal justice system is viewed mainly through the perspective of what has been perpetuated on television. Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander compares the TV version of the criminal justice system to the real one, stating that they are “the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves;” furthermore, she states that this is “the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control” (59). She isn’t the only one who feels the criminal justice system has been racialized, even more shockingly the entire war on drugs was just a tool to reach political goals. In an interview with Dan Baum, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, said “The Nixon White House… had two enemies; the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… and vilify them night after night on the evening news” (Legalize It All). The entire basis of the modern criminal justice system was changed with the war on drugs, american police work went from investigating homicides, theft, and other crimes generally portrayed on TV, to breaking into houses and cracking down on drug use.

To become informed that the foundation of the criminal justice system we know was erected off of a racially charged policy brings up some major questions on whether or not these people can actually be considered prisoners, or bad. Currently drug offenders make up our largest federal prison population, second largest local jail population, and third largest state prison population (Wagner and Rabuy). That is the point where the prison system must undergo a reevaluation, and the results speak for themselves. With a 67% recidivism rate as cited earlier, maximizing rehabilitation and transitional programs are quickly becoming the best options for relieving the stress on the system, as well as taking away the racial charge. Fixing the issue earlier generations have created must start somewhere, and that somewhere must be lowering the recidivism rate and reincorporating people who have made their mistakes back into society.

The first step we must take is increasing rehabilitation programs within society. The argument against this only goes as far to say that either a) rehabilitation doesn’t work, or b) rehabilitation isn’t cost effective. However, cost effectiveness shouldn’t be a standard which we judge how we are going to treat people for the rest of their lives. Human worth outweighs that of money, even human worth of criminals especially ones that qualify for rehabilitation programs. These are people who are mainly drug or alcohol abusers, they still have a chance to make their lives worth something outside of the prison system, but not if we don’t give them the opportunity. Inmates beg for the opportunity to enter into a rehabilitation program, Philip Brasfield is currently incarcerated, and has been since 1977. Mr. Brasfield argues that anything is possible with change, and that “instead of being thrown away as useless, dangerous, and unfit, people in prison should be encouraged and required to participate in counseling, education and job-training programs…” that these people “ought to be taught a viable, marketable job skill that will assure them the dignity of earning a living wage…”(Brasfield). Rehabilitation isn’t something that should be judged based on cost-effectiveness, unless looking for a way to improve the programs.

Second, rehabilitation programs have been proven to work time and time again, furthering the idea of education expressed by Mr. Brasfield. The Pew Research Center finds that “states that had the most inmates with Pell Grants and who had obtained the most college degrees while in prison correlated directly with areas where recidivism fell dramatically” (Song). The effective ability of rehab programs doesn’t end with education however, recent programs such as drug courts which encourage rehabilitation have had dramatic effects at lowering recidivism rates as well. Drug court programs are defined as programs which “in exchange for the possibility of dismissed charges or reduced sentences, defendants… agree to participate in judicially monitored substance abuse treatment.” Studies done on drug court programs find that participants were less likely to be reconvicted, or a longer time between leaving prison and being rearrested than did the control group members (Government Accountability Office). Simply entering into a drug court program wasn’t enough however, completion of the program was paramount. The GOA concludes their study on drug courts stating that “while drug court participation is generally associated with lower recidivism, the recidivism of program completers is lower than for participants…” so not only must prisons prioritize rehabilitation programs, but completion of these programs (GOA). The problem isn’t that no one is trying to lower recidivism rates, or that the programs being instituted aren’t working, the problem is that we aren’t prioritizing effective rehabilitation. The same hopeful study by the GOA pointed out that only 1,200 drug court programs existed in the United States (GOA). The outstanding point about rehab is that it not only reduces recidivism but it changes the atmosphere of so many people. For every person incarcerated, it can be assumed that they have at least two close family members, so multiply that by the 6 million earlier cited as being in prison. That’s 18 million people affected by crime, the majority of those being substance abuse crimes, it’s also common notion that if one has a family member addicted to a substance the likelihood of them becoming addicted also rises. This is why, the United States, if it wants to end drug abuse, must end these environments that foster more and more substance abuse (Brasfield). The current method is obviously not working, while rehab has been proven to work, it’s time for a change, and rehab isn’t the only one that should be made.

Transitional programs are an option for people who are being released from prison. Instead of being in prison treatment like rehab programs, these are for prisoners who have served their sentence and are re-entering society. They are designed “to allow offenders take responsibility for their lives through restitution to the community, employment, financial management, drug and alcohol treatment, cognitive restructuring, positive peer association development, and prosocial behavior” (Jordan). Transitional programs are less known and often times devalued in their worth; therefore, there aren’t very many in operation around the country. These programs serve to house previous inmates and serve as a “middle ground,” providing “services to voluntarily meet compliance with court orders and parole and probation supervision, and/or to serve as a subsidy housing placement.” Transitional programs help to solve for what Dr. Bill Davidson considers the key areas that foster criminal activities, most important of these being “stable housing, illegal substance and alcohol abuse, faulty thinking, [and] restitution to the community” (Jordan). Being completely voluntary, it can be argued these programs don’t help any except those that were already going to pursue crime-free lifestyles; however, these programs provide the assistance that make it possible for people to abandon those ideas. 68% of inmates haven’t gotten a highschool diploma (Harlow). That makes it all the more tempting to return to a life of crime after being released, for no other reason than lack of options. Hardly anyone is willing to hire a previous inmate, with no education, and who probably has little if any job experience besides breaking the law. In come the transitional programs to fill the void, so instead of returning to a life of crime to provide for oneself, they have a stable environment where they can get their GED, find counseling, contact potential employers, and become productive members of society.

There is no 100% fix for the issue of recidivism, and there is no reversing the damage done by the War on Drugs, but this is how to start. By prioritizing rehab and transitional programs the United States can lower it’s recidivism rate. This has multiple and unending impacts in society, reducing crime environments, providing more productive members of society, and righting previous wrongs. The Criminal Justice system was built on faulty policy, so it’s time we stopped treating it like it is flawless or efficient and start fixing the problems it has created.




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