Saturday, October 16, 2010

Land of the (not so) Free

Disclaimer:  statistics headed this direction.  I've been having lots of research fun this morning.  My Googling journey started when I read this article from Politico describing the success of Portugal's decriminalization of drugs, and its focus on treatment instead.  That started my mind along the path of crime and punishment. 

Logic says than in order to protect our citizens and property from violence and theft, we need prisons.  Totally agreed, even though I've yet to see quality research on whether being in prison actually deters the same individual from committing crimes once released.  What we do know is that being in prison limits an individual from easily finding a job and impacts his or her ability to be economically successful after leaving prison.  But we don't want violent and thieving criminals on the streets, right?

Here's where my demographic delving started.  I decided to look for Missouri statistics because, hell, that's where I live.  Missouri's Department of Corrections budget for 2009 was $664,563,452, and spending was within that amount.  $664 million is not too much to pay for safety, though. 

The disquieting reality of prison demographics in Missouri, however, is that 46.4% prisoners in 2009 were in prison for non-violent crimes.  30.6% of all new admissions in 2009 were drug-related.  6.3% percent of new admissions were DWI-related offenses.  16.8% of new admissions were considered mentally ill.  The number one type of sentence for a new admission in Missouri was possession of a controlled substance.  The average sentence length for possession was 5 years in 2009.  Even better, my county in Missouri, St. Francois, imprisons the highest number of people in Missouri as compared to its population.  What are we doing to promote freedom at home while we seek to promote it abroad? 

What does it mean when a society chooses to imprison people who perhaps do not have the capacity to be fully cognizant of the crimes they commit?  People who are mentally ill, who are drug-addled, who struggle with addiction to alcohol?  Why wouldn't we focus on treating these individuals to clear out nearly half of the prison population?  Our police officers could direct their energies towards solving crimes instead of being in the business of keeping people penned up as if they were mad dogs.  It worked for Portugal, it could work for Missouri.

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