Prison Overcrowding
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JULY 4, 1997


Decriminalizing drugs could double space

To the Editor:

In his June 17 comment, Michael Graney, vice president of the New York State Law Enforcement Officers Union, stated the major cause of the deadly 1971 Attica riot was prison overcrowding.

He went on to say not only are we even more overcrowded now, but the classification system of segregating violent prisoners has broken down and that puts us all at risk. He recommends building more prisons as the solution.

First, an economic comment. It costs approximately $500,000 to put a new person in jail; $150,000 to build a new cell; $150,000 for arrest and prosecution; and $150,000 to $200,000 to incarcerated that person for five years.

It must give the proposed number of people to be incarcerated for a certain crime in order to lower the incidence of that crime. Then, that number should be multiplied times $500,000 to see if we can afford it as a society.

Second, Graney should look at his own correction statistics. In 1980, there were 7,959 state prison commitments. Of that, 4,550 or 57 percent were for violent felonies: murder, rape, manslaughter, robbery and assault. There were 2, 654 -- 33 percent -- commitments for nonviolent offenses, of which 885 -- 11 percent -- were for sale or possession of drugs.

In 1996, there were 21, 171 state prison commitments. Of that, 6,192 or 29 percent were for violent felonies. There were 12,865 -- 61 percent commitments for nonviolent offenses, of which 9,841 or 46 percent were for sale or possession of drugs.

This trend is obviously backward. Any sane society worried about violence would not be wasting extremely expensive prison space by quarantining nonviolent people.

Rather than sock it to the tax-paying public by expanding prisons, we could double our state prison capacity merely by decriminalizing and regulating drugs and allocating some of the savings toward public health programs that would reduce the harms caused by drugs.

Putting people in prison for drug offenses certainly hasn't reduced our drug problems.

How many must go to prison before the war on drugs can be considered successful? Then, multiply that number times $500,000.

Tinelli is a member of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy

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