The Problem We All Live With

(with thanks to Norman Rockwell for the title)

Politicians from both sides of the aisle are beginning to recognize that spending $55,000 a year to incarcerate individuals in NJ has given us a very poor return on that money.

A little over 50% of individuals that are released from prison or jail* return to the criminal justice system within the next 3 years. We are neither rehabilitating people nor deterring crime.

Since the end of WWII, Democrats have been afraid of appearing that they are soft on crime, so they have supported harsh drug laws, mandatory minimums and the building of large public (and private) prisons. Some Democrats are aghast at the lack of ROI and the data that shows that drug problems are only getting worse. They have finally stood up to be heard.

But change is actually being pushed by Republicans, who are just now realizing that a large part of our state and federal budgets are paying to incarcerate Americans in astronomical numbers – the US has 25% of the world’s prison population. They are beginning to talk about how we should reduce our prison population, look at alternative options and spend this money on other projects.

Sound drug policy that pays for adequate drug treatment (which is FAR cheaper than incarceration) is a good start. This recent op-ed covers an upcoming bi-partisan summit here in NJ.

I was not interested in criminal justice policy until I began working in the drug and alcohol field (and then again when I worked at the largest inner city high school in America). Education, drug policy and the criminal justice system are intertwined, and any discussion of one of them should touch upon the others. We continue to lock up our poor and minorities at a much higher rate than wealthy and/or white people.

*prison is for a year or more and is run by the state or fed; jail is run by the county or municipality and people generally stay there 364 days or less

Addendum: CNN report of the aforementioned criminal justice summit in NJ