Our society does not like to deal with people who have tremendous needs. Instead of confronting the issues, our response has been to lock up people with chronic medical problems and keep them out of sight and out of mind. For example, until the 1960s most people with serious mental illness spent their lives in institutions. Seniors were similarly warehoused in drab nursing homes for far too long. Today people with substance abuse and addiction issues often are processed in the criminal justice system rather than cared for in the healthcare system—and many end up behind bars instead of in a chair at an AA or NA meeting.
Yet lawmakers are beginning to question the wisdom of incarcerating drug offenders, especially people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, as the nation's prison population continues to grow. Consider the situation in Florida, which has experienced some of the most dramatic growth. According to a February report from the Pew Center on the States, Florida had 53,000 inmates in 1993, 97,000 last year and, says the Miami Herald, could break the 100,000 mark by year's end. In fact, the Pew Center estimates that the Sunshine State will run out of prison capacity by early next year.
In response to this crisis, Florida legislators are considering measures to ease the prison population's growth and size, such as supervised work releases, a commission to review mandatory-minimum sentences, and lessened penalties for nonviolent drug crimes (the Herald reports that about 20% of the inmates are nonviolent drug offenders). One such lawmaker is Tampa State Sen. Victor Crist, who chairs the Senate's Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee. He told the Herald, “That's the old way; throw a drug addict in jail. But now we know treatment works, it's better and it's cheaper,” adding, “If you're a violent criminal, you belong in a cell. If you're a drug addict, you belong in a rehab program.” Those are strong words for any public official, particularly a Republican.
Yet Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (no relation but a fellow member of the GOP) told the newspaper that he doesn't support legislative plans to review the state's drug laws, saying, “It's important to make sure that we do what the first order of business is, and that is to ensure domestic tranquility—make sure that our people are safe—and that means locking up bad people.” I hope the governor is not referring to people with substance abuse problems as “bad people” (I suspect people with mental illness were institutionalized in the past in the name of “domestic tranquility”). Such antiquated ideas will not help solve the drug problems this country faces. And Gov. Crist might have a national role to play, as pundits frequently cite him as a potential running mate for John McCain. Gov. Crist did tell the Herald that he is recommending that the state spend $28 million on substance abuse treatment, although his 2008-2009 budget (detailed online) allocates $2.8 billion for corrections.
Our society can no longer afford to spend billions on warehousing people with substance abuse problems. New policies are desperately needed to make a difference. One Crist in Florida has the right idea. The other most certainly does not.