Saturday, November 05, 2005
The Birmingham News
Anyone who says drug addiction isn't a serious problem should be asked: What have you been smoking?
The fact is, addiction is a costly plague that wrecks lives, families and communities, and most of us are too aware of it. The only real dispute should be over how society deals with addicts and reduces the harm they do to themselves and others.
Alabama can keep doing what it's been doing - locking up those who use and abuse drugs - but only if it's willing to pay a steep price for the privilege.
A study released last week shows drug offenses accounted for 31 percent of prison admissions in Alabama last year. Of 10,267 prison admissions in 2004, 3,202 were drug-related offenses - almost double the combined number of admissions for robbery, murder, rape and manslaughter. Between 1999 and 2004, prison admissions for drug and alcohol offenses increased more than 20 percent.
Worse yet, drug addicts are serving longer sentences and clogging prisons under the state's habitual offender laws, according to the report prepared by Justice Strategies of New York for the Drug Policy Alliance. The report says 1,325 of the state's 8,259 habitual offenders are drug convicts.
If this continues, the state will have to build and staff new prisons to accommodate the swelling inmate population - or face the penalties for operating dangerously crowded prisons. Alabama's been there, done that.
As the study demonstrates, it makes more sense for drug offenders to get treatment for their addictions and to be diverted, when possible, from expensive prison cells to cheaper community-based alternatives.
Most communities, though, lack enough drug treatment programs and alternatives to meet the needs. And because some communities are better equipped than others, racial and geographic disparities show up in those who are getting sent to prison for long stretches. That's unacceptable.
Alabama must address the problem by devoting more resources to drug treatment programs and by developing more alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. We can't keep locking people up and throwing away the key.