Many of my friends have used drugs. Many of my friends still use drugs.
Many of my friends have been to prison. Some of my friends are in prision today.
Drugs and prison follow one another almost automatically, especially if you are poor and living in an urban area.
Drugs create a terrible scene in the city. Watching the tragic cycle repeat itself again and again makes me wonder if there might not be a better way.
Here's how the cycle works. A person, from an extremely disadvantaged family, usually under 21, a high school dropout and unemployed or underemployed, begins using drugs with friends in the 'hood. In some cases the young person may have served as a "mule" for drug dealers while still a minor. Eventually, if not initially, crack becomes the drug of choice.
I'm not talking about selling drugs, just using. I'm not talking about violent offenders, just street corner users who look up one day and they are thirty and trapped in a downward spiral.
Somewhere between initial use and age 30, an arrest takes place. The charge relates to the possession of narcotics. Due to the overcrowded court system, a plea is usually entered. Probation for a first offense is almost automatic, if there is no traffiking, violence or some other crime related to simple possession or use.
Now probation meetings must be attended and fees must be paid. In the vast majority of cases for the poor, no treatment is available.
Since nothing of real significance changes in the user's life, the cycle typically repeats itself. The second time around the user receives a sentence and ends up in a state prision. When he or she comes out, the probation process begins again with harsher consequences attached to any violation of the rules, including return to prison.
But now things are different. As an ex-offender with time served, a person faces a real challenge finding a place to live and work. Many people try hard to break out of the old pattern, some manage it. Many, many others don't. With no real job and no decent place to reside, many of my friends have found themselves back at the same old corners, with the same old friends.
During the entire process, in most cases, no one has addressed the matter of addiction directly. In the vast majority of cases no treatment has been offered or accepted.
From a economic standpoint we need to think in new ways. Today in the U.S. 2.1 million people are behind bars. Corrections costs have risen over the past twenty years from $9 billion to over $60 billion annually, making prison costs the second-fasting growing expense in state budgets, after Medicaid. Prisons have become an industry fueling the economic life of many rural areas.
Practically speaking, from the standpoint of community development and stability in urban areas, our current approach removes males from neighborhoods, exposes them to the harsh realities of prison life, dumps them back on the streets and does little or nothing to challenge the addiction and poverty that got them started in the first place.
There must be a better way.
(More to follow.)
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