Especially since the reactionary presidency of Ronald Reagan, America has been hell-bent on "lock 'em up and throw away the key." With the introduction of drugs into American culture during the horrid Vietnam War, breaking the law to get a fix permeated all of society in the U.S. Ironically, the very conservatives who wanted to lock up all drug offenders, had supported the Vietnam War and the Contras in Nicaragua, both wars greatly causing the rise in illegal drug use here. The path of drugs to America can be laid largely at the feet of conservatives. History has a strange way of showing us the truth.
What has happened since the Reagan administration's decision to lock up more people, even for minor offenses? The obvious result can be found in the astronomical increase in the prison population. Another result has been the deterioration of the inner cities where drugs and crime go hand in hand as the white population was not serving sentences as long as blacks, and where white suppliers internationally rarely went to jail. Young blacks, either coming home from Vietnam or living in despair in an unequal world, turned to drugs for "relief." Marijuana smoking often resulted in long sentences in prison, sometimes even a life sentence for using or selling weed. Cheap crack cocaine, used primarily in poor areas, resulted in far harsher sentencing than the white-preferred powder cocaine. Blacks were taking a double hit in this system.
However the greatest problem with sentencing ANYONE to long prison sentences for non-violent crimes is that we turn amateur criminals into professional criminals in the prison crime "universities." And when young people are sentenced to long prison sentences during the years in which they should be establishing a work or educational resume, we not only lose these people for life but we [society] ensures their long life of crime.
What happens in prison? Budget constraints have taken away educational opportunities, lessened quality drug treatment, taken away recreational programs in prisons. Punishment, not correction, is the order of the day. People who work in prison may sometimes be understanding and well-intentioned human beings, but working in a structure of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" evaporates their most humane intent. Rape and sodomy are common experiences. The media presents what is viewed as the general population's desire for harsh treatment. To make staffs and politicians happy, the prisons present a bleak picture for the people who are locked up.
How do I know this? In Washington, DC and in Wisconsin, I have served on boards of directors, thrown myself deeply into "corrections," met with state legislators on the subject, and got to know what the truth is in this regard. It isn't pretty. It isn't even very human. It is counterproductive and out of step with a civilized society. And the people from the legislature who serve on prison or corrections committees too often know little or nothing about what they are making decisions about.
Critics of my point of view immediately jump to the worst and most hardened and dangerous criminals and scare people because these offenders will be released [or "unleased"] into society to threaten us, our children, our wives. But I am not advocating for no prisons, and certainly not for releasing violent offenders. But there are many, many people in prison for driving with no lawful driver's license, for smoking or selling marijuana, for failing to pay parking fines, ad infinitum.
To take away programs that serve to educate and rehabilitate offenders is like shooting oneself in the foot. We should definitely use every possible rehabilitation tool to help these offenders to become useful, tax-paying, healthy citizens. Prison is no place for this to happen, at least not our current prisons.
To change all this will require a total change of attitude by the public, people serving in the corrections and judicial system, and even the media. When it is pointed out, for example, that a state that was more harsh in treating offenders saw their crime rates go down, it is rarely pointed out that those states that did not do that had a similar drop in crime statistics. We have a mess in criminal justice and corrections in the U.S. We are hurting ourselves in the process. And for the conservatives who are always yelling about taxes, it should be comforting to know that a more enlightened approach to corrections results in lower recidivism, smaller corrections costs, fewer people in prison, etc. We can all vote for that!
***Inasmuch as I always hear from the people who still believe the Reagan myth, check these sources and also check about Gary Webb and his series of reports on Reagan, the CIA, and the introduction of drugs into the U.S.: