As a reporter, one common theme I have heard discussed over the last two decades is overcrowding in prisons and the growing cost of housing prisoners and inmates in county jails, state prisons and federal prisons.
Some states have turned to the drastic measure of privatizing prisons — hiring private companies to build and then run prisons for a hefty fee — just to get out of the inmate business.
And it’s hard to blame them. In Texas, the state spends $3.3 billion a year to house prisoners, an average of $22,000 per inmate. Across the country, states spend almost $43 billion a year, and that number is growing every year.
I am and have always been a strong supporter of law enforcement. I believe if you break the law, there should be punishment. But I also think it may be time to re-think the law.
For years, I have written about and believed marijuana for personal use should be legalized. I don’t use the drug and don’t like it personally, but I think locking up people because they have a small amount on them for personal use is frankly stupid.
Last week, I was listening to a radio show where the host made an argument that personal use of all drugs should be decriminalized. The host, a former police officer and judge, has long held the belief that if adults choose to harm themselves through their behavior that should be allowed.
As I listened, his argument made more and more sense. The role of government is not and should not be to protect people from themselves. There aren’t enough laws out there to do that. That may be a very libertarian way of seeing the world, but it makes sense.
Criminal laws should exist to protect me and you from the harm others could do. If I want to take a sledgehammer to my own car, that should be allowed. If someone else does that to me, that should be forbidden.
The same argument can be made with drugs. If I want to use marijuana or, frankly, any other drug while at home and I hurt no one else, that should not be a crime. If I hurt someone else, that changes things.
In Texas and across the nation, our jails and our prisons are full of men and women who did nothing more than use drugs recreationally. Statistically, a full 50 percent of all prisoners in federal prisons are there on drug charges. In state prisons, the number is smaller, just 16 percent.
Today, way over 1 million people are sitting in state prisons. More than 200,000 of those are there on drug charges. Of course, not all of them are there for possessing small amounts, but the majority are. And the majority are young black and Hispanic men facing years behind bars because they wanted to get high.
In some states like California that have the three strikes and you’re out laws, many of those men are serving life sentences for crimes that hurt no one.
It’s time for that to change. Possession of drugs should no longer be a felony. Heck, it should be decriminalized altogether.
If society wants to make a moral stand against drugs, then keep them illegal, but make it civil crimes with fines, much like traffic tickets.
I'm not in favor of legalizing all drugs. If you catch the dealers, lock them up. And I certainly don't want to see drug stores on every corner. But people who are only harming themselves should not be punished.
Locking up young men and women for nothing more than harming themselves is foolish, it’s a waste of valuable resources and tears up families and communities across our state and our nation. The biggest target — young black and Hispanic men and women who are torn away from their families and locked up, sometimes for years, because they did drugs.
And one last point, sending these small-time users to prison does not rehabilitate them and it rarely teaches them a lesson. Prison is not a place to teach lessons. If you want to help addicts, prison doesn’t do it.
It’s time to change the way we think and change the way we view drug users. I don’t personally like or use any of them, but calling someone who does a criminal when he hurts no one but himself is simply wrong.