Sunday, January 15, 2017

Chronic social issues without resolution

A thought-provoking piece in the New York Times, This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. Why? by Josh Keller and Adam Pearce.

Keller and Pearce, I think, are letting their ideological leanings drive them to a different place than the data will actually support. I empathize with the goal of prison reform, though, from what I have seen, there is actually a lot less opportunity than the optimists think. As far as I can tell, at the Federal and State levels, there are vanishingly few people in prison who would merit some sort of leniency; they almost uniformly have long records of violent deeds. Megan McArdle has written extensively and intelligently about how to square the circle of ideals and reality here, here, here, and elsewhere, including her book, The Up Side of Down.

The greater opportunity lies at the city and county level where there is much greater variation in sentencing. That said, the issues get much more muddied here though as well. I know in my city, it easy to get caught up in a highly inefficient and dysfunctional judicial system but it is also very hard to actually end up sentenced to jail for serious crime. You end up with the worst of both worlds: those who are dangerous to the public go free and those least able to defend themselves from false or less consequential accusations end up in jail (not prison) for inappropriately extended periods.

I am very sympathetic to the idea that we need some better mechanism of constraining District Attorneys. Most are superb at doing a very difficult job but when there is a bad apple, the scope of their power and the latitude for abuse is a weak link in the judicial system. But sympathy is hard to translate into an actionable policy or course of action. Lots of ideas, but every one of which has some trade-off.

And I am hugely in support of finding someway to distinguish crime from mental health and addiction issues. The mentally ill need caring for, and not in prison. Those with addiction issues should also be treated on two separate fronts. Yes, punishment for any criminal activity related to their addiction, but also treatment for the underlying addiction as well.

So my sympathy is, in some regards, aligned with some of Keller and Pearce's points but there is too much an air of utopian idealism and wishful thinking in their piece.

They lead with:
LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. — Donnie Gaddis picked the wrong county to sell 15 oxycodone pills to an undercover officer.

If Mr. Gaddis had been caught 20 miles to the east, in Cincinnati, he would have received a maximum of six months in prison, court records show. In San Francisco or Brooklyn, he would probably have received drug treatment or probation, lawyers say.

But Mr. Gaddis lived in Dearborn County, Ind., which sends more people to prison per capita than nearly any other county in the United States. After agreeing to a plea deal, he was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison.

“Years? Holy Toledo — I’ve settled murders for a lot less than that,” said Philip Stephens, a public defender in Cincinnati.

Dearborn County represents the new boom in American prisons: mostly white, rural and politically conservative.
But for all the social justice noise in the article, there is an underlying issue that pokes through - "opioid and meth addiction are ravaging small communities."

It's not the point of their article but it prompts an interesting train of thought.

Drug overdose deaths are now topping 40,000 a year in the US. For reference, there are, very roughly, 30,000 traffic related deaths, 20,000 suicides and 10,000 murders. The numbers are almost in inverse portion to the political/policy attention paid to them: most the attention is on murders (gun violence), some on suicides, not much on traffic deaths, and only occasional pieces on the impact of drug addiction.

A couple of thoughts.

It is interesting to see the inversion from the 1980s. As crack cocaine came on the scene, along with cocaine in general, the plague was concentrated in urban centers. Crack afflicted the poorest in cities and cocaine was, in general, the drug of choice among the wealthy.

It is easy to forget now, that much of the pressure for harsh sentencing terms for crack came from the community leaders and political representatives of the hard hit urban black communities.

Now, forty years later, the drug impact is inverted. Methamphetamine and opioid abuse are concentrated in small towns and the countryside, while, for whatever reasons, the impact on urban centers has been negligible. And, as before, we are seeing, from the evidence in the article, that those areas hardest hit are those with the greatest inclination to tackle the problem via harsh sentencing. Harsh punishment of crack cocaine was not a racial issue as it latterly has been made out to be, just as harsh punishment of opioid and methamphetamine is also not a racial issue. Communities are trying to protect themselves.

So we are back to the real fundamental issue. We don't have too much to show for nearly 46 years of a War on Drugs. Nearly half a century of serious money and serious thinking and serious actions about how to deal with a scourge that is still striking our people down. What is it that we are missing? What is it that we can do differently?

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