Want to hear a sobering fact? The United States of America is the only country in the developed world that doles out life sentences to teenagers involved in small-time, non-violent drug offenses. Shockingly, the Department of Justice hands out these sentences to young people with unbelievable regularity. America spends $40 billion dollars, annually, to lockup hundreds or thousands of first-time, low-level dealers. Ignoring the glaring fact that we are not in an economic position to spend such an exuberant amount of money every year on something so absurd, locking up this many people, many of which have serious drug and alcohol dependencies, does nothing to curb the amount of drug production or consumption that takes place every day across the country.
After “The War on Drugs” began in the late eighties, the United States Congress enacted new, federal mandatory, guidelines for prison sentences for individuals convicted of drug offenses. The problem with these guidelines is that they do not care whether or not a person is a first-time, young, non-violent offender that is in far greater need of rehabilitation than incarceration. These draconian sentences do nothing to address the underlying issue involved with drugs, which is abuse. Millions of Americans struggle every day with addictions to drugs and alcohol, and throwing them in jail does not mean that society is any safer. These individuals, given proper counseling and treatment, could become proactive, contributing members of society. Instead, we send thousands of teenagers every year to jail for their entire lives.
While campaigning for office, President Obama was vocally critical of the current system of mandatory jail sentences for drug offenders. However, since he has taken office, he has done little to end the practice of locking up people who have committed non-violent drug offenses. This is not surprising, as the nation as a whole does not seem ready to admit that locking up so many individuals does nothing to stem the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse in this country.
Not until people are made fully aware of the staggering amounts of research that show how rehabilitation at drug treatment centers is far more effective at curtailing drug abuse than prison sentences are will we be able to openly discuss whether or not our current policy should be abandoned. Research has shown, over and over, that residential treatment programs are far more useful in stopping a person from destroying their lives by abusing drugs or alcohol than going to prison is. Ironically, prison tends to make people abandon hope completely.
If and when these people get out of jail, it is nearly impossible for them to find a quality job, and many resort back to their days of abusing drugs and alcohol. This perpetuates a vicious cycle that shows no sign of ending. Ronald Regan declared war on drugs in 1986, and since that time both drug usage and production has skyrocketed. It is time we call this war. Drugs won. It wasn’t even a fair fight. It is time for our country to reevaluate how we address the drug problem in this country. By sentencing people to drug addiction rehabilitation instead of prison, we will be making a much greater impact on the drug culture in America.