America paying a real cost to continue the war on drugs

By Nausheen Shaikh

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Statistics collected by the Bureau of Justice showed that more than 2.25 million people were in American prisons or jails in 2006. To illustrate the contrast with other nations, consider that 751 out of every 100,000 US residents are incarcerated while 148 out of every 100,000 are incarcerated in the UK.

These statistics suggest that either a) America breeds immorality, b) every other country in the world is too soft on crime, or c) we need to seriously reconsider who we are putting behind bars. To me, the last option makes the most sense.

Although there are many unnecessary arrests in the U.S., the societal costs of arresting drug offenders in particular often outweigh the benefits.

In 2006, 249,000 state prisoners and 53 percent of federal inmates were serving time for drug charges, mainly trafficking and possession.

Good intentions drive these arrests. Drug users threaten society through drug-related crimes and the deterioration of themselves and the youth that they influence. The purpose of drug-related incarceration is to reduce the use and accessibility of drugs and their effects, but at what costs?

Imprisonment is incapacitating, even after release. The released are faced with criminal reputations and records, jeopardized relationships and legal fees. For many offenders, drugs serve as an escape from uncontrollable circumstances, such as poverty and a lack of opportunity. Due to a lack of education and money, convicted drug-offenders are less able to avoid punishment. They, however, choose to break the law, so why should we care?

Arresting drug offenders obstructs, rather than promotes, societal well-being. We not only waste away the potential contribution that the hundreds of thousand of inmates could make to society, but by labeling them with a criminal record, we continue to handicap our human capital even after release.

Furthermore, we deepen the bitterness and hopelessness of the criminals and the families that they had left behind. Such sentiments hold high potential for hurting our communities. Also, the monetary cost to the government is significant. According to the American Corrections Association, the average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the U.S. is $67.55. That means that the incarceration of drug offenders in state prisons cost us more than $16 million in 2006.

The question of when incarceration is appropriate for drug offenders should be determined by its effectiveness in helping society. While the arrest of those who run drug organizations cuts off several gateways to drugs, and thus cleans up the nation, imprisoning those charged with possession and low-end dealing is hardly effective. Drug dealers are simply replaced, and despite a significant increase in the number of drug offenders in prisons over the past several years, reports of drug use have hardly swayed. Imprisoning these individuals is not only ineffective but self-destructive. We must find a more appropriate punishment.