The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

I’m getting ready to conduct a recovery workshop at a prison in Texas in February. Lately I’ve been reading up about the realities of incarceration in our country … and I am appalled. Right now more than one out of 100 Americans is behind bars. We imprison more of our people than any other country.

A big part of the problem is our failed war on drugs, with mandatory sentencing in drug related offenses. I am no fan of drugs, but I’m fed up with our country’s approach to this very important issue. Isn’t it time that we declare the “war on drugs” to be a colossal failure, and instead push more money into addiction treatment? If we took just a FRACTION of the money we spend today on law enforcement and incarceration for the “war on drugs” and diverted it treatment, we could actually start to make some headway.

At the very least, we could reduce the crazy mandatory sentences we have for drug-related offenses, and institute more restorative justice approaches.


Take a look at the infographic in this article, and ask yourself, “Who is benefiting from the war on drugs?” Obviously drug cartels and dealers, but also (and here’s the disturbing part) … so are police departments, which have seen their budgets grow exponentially to “stem the tide” against illegal drugs, the companies that supply weapons and technology to both drug cartels and the police departments that fight them, and — most disturbing — PRISONS.

The fastest growing population in the US is our prisons … and as the graphic shows, we now imprison 1 out of every 100 citizens. We imprison more of our citizens than any country in the world. AND … half of federal prisoners and 1/4 of all prisoners are there because of no-violent, drug-related offenses.

Who is paying for this?


According to the latest figures I could find (2007), it costs taxpayers an average of $31,267 per year to feed, house, and guard each and every prisoner. I’m sure it’s gone up since then. Amazingly, NYC just released that in 2012, it cost them $167,731 per prisoner.

And of course incarceration is just the tip of the iceberg. It does not factor in other law enforcement costs. In 2007, it cost an average of $116,500 per sworn police officer. In 2008, there were 765,000 police officers in the US. I can only assume both figures are higher today.

Don’t get me wrong … I am not disparaging police. We need them, now more than ever, primarily because the way we’ve dealt with the drug problem has basically served to pour Miracle Grow on criminal enterprise across the world.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I’m not saying we should legalize all drugs. But we should be talking about it, with more urgency than we are now. And we should definitely be doing more for prevention and treatment of addiction. Being “anti-drugs” does not mean we need to be FOR the criminalization of drugs, having harsher sentences for offenders, and so on. We can be anti-drugs, and anti-criminalization of drugs, provided we are also pro-treatment of drug abuse and addiction.

A tale of two countries

Here are two contrasting pictures to get your head around:

(1) In the USA, we can’t seem to build prisons fast enough, and a new report shows that by the time they reach the age of 23, nearly half the black males and nearly 40% of white males will have been arrested at least once. Source:

(2) Meanwhile, in the Netherlands … they are planning to shut down eight prisons, because there aren’t enough criminals to house them. I’m not making this up. They have space for 14,000 criminals in prison, but only have 12,000 inmates.

Here’s one of MANY links to the story from the Netherlands … about needing to close prisons because there aren’t enough criminals. It’s also on HuffPost, but I think this is a better article. Source:

You don’t have to agree with me on all these points … feel free to add your “two cents” and rebuttals … but please “like” this post so others can see it, and comment on it. Let’s talk about this!

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