America’s mass incarceration problem has disastrous consequences for all of us. There is of course the incredible fiscal cost of incarcerating one quarter of the world’s prisoners – federal spending on incarceration is estimated at $80 billion a year. That’s $80 billion we could be spending on education, hospitals, and programs that would prevent criminal activity in the first place.
But far worse than the fiscal cost is, of course, the human cost. Mass incarceration is an utter failure as a public policy – it devastates individuals, families, and communities; has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and poor people; and has failed to produce a proportional increase in public safety.
At the heart of the problem is our failed war on drugs – the number one driver of our incarceration crisis both in Maine and nationwide. For the last several decades, drug arrests have skyrocketed, and the vast majority have been for low-level possesion charges.
Yet the uptick in drug arrests has done little or nothing to curb drug use – as we have seen here at home, where we hear almost daily of more drug overdose deaths.
Spending millions on more drug law enforcement may put more people in jail, but if we continue to cut funding for treatment programs, we fail to address the heart of the addiction problem. This is first and foremost a public health issue and should be treated as such.
That is why we are urging Maine’s senators to co-sponsor and support the federalSentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The SRCA will fix some of the federal policies and laws that have contributed to the growing federal prison population and the racial disparities in the system. It strikes a balance that allows us to maintain and even increase public safety, while creating a system that is more fair and justice.
We are thankful to Senators Collins and King for their recent attention to the drug crisis in Maine – including the announcement earlier this month that Maine health centers will receive over $1 million to help fight opiate addiction.
We also note the senators’ support of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would amend the Higher Education Act to stop asking students about past drug convictions in order to determine eligibility for financial aid.
Currently, we have a system that works against people who are struggling with addiction, by placing far too many barriers to recovery in their way. Longer sentences, barriers to jobs and education, and separation from community and family are not the answer. If we truly want to heal our community, it’s time for a new approach.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is one important step toward addressing our nation’s deeply flawed criminal justice system.