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Education Not Incarceration

The U.S. has locked up two million prisoners in an epidemic of incarceration, thanks to the war on drugs. What would an alternative drug policy look like -- one based on expanded social conciousness?
 
 
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"What specific programs would you propose to cause the have-nots to improve their situation?" - an interested reader asks out in Seattle.

The so-called war on drugs is a good jumping off point because it is at that juncture where race, gender and class relations get entangled in a massive web of fear and loathing, strangling the spirit of liberty and egalitarianism woven into the very fabric of this country.

We are in the midst of an epidemic. Fueled by a widespread (overwhelmingly white) demand for illicit drugs, the U.S. prison population has reached the unprecedented mark of two million inmates, making the incarceration rate in America number one in the industrialized world. Add to that the many, many more drug users and dealers who are not locked up and you have a full-blown drug crisis.

I will lay aside the well-established correlation between low socioeconomic status and what is commonly called "street crime," and point out the inescapable fact that (criminal motive notwithstanding) relying on incarceration to control the drug crisis has severe social costs; not the least of which is the acceleration of community breakdown already afflicting the poor and vulnerable.

In a campaign speech called "Armies of Compassion," President Bush - being the soother of racial tensions that he is - noted that the prison population has tripled over the last 15 years. This incarceration orgy, he said in one of the biggest understatements of the new millennium, poses "a problem." With so many people in jail, there are now 1.3 million children in America with one or both of their parents behind bars.

Nothing less than an expansion of social consciousness will do. It's a tall order. And there is only so much you can convey in a single column. So let me get to it, realizing that anything short of a tome will not adequately address the complex issues raised here. At the very least, this will be one tiny testimony, a thumbnail sketch, of an alternative vision.

I propose that we grant a one-time pardon to imprisoned drug dealers who have not been convicted of serious violent felonies on the condition that they complete a long-term drug treatment program (if appropriate) and also graduate from a highly structured business apprenticeship under the close supervision of probation officers.

This would have to be a tremendous collaborative effort between federal and state government, and private business interests - in which business executives mentor pardoned drug dealers.

At the end of the apprenticeship the ex-dealer would have one of three options. 1.) Apply for a guaranteed, government-funded, no- or low-interest loan to try his hand at legal entrepreneurship; 2.) Prove he (or she) has a job, which would ideally be a job tied to the business organization that provided the apprenticeship; or 3.) Go directly to jail. Do not pass 'Go.' Do not collect the pardon.

On the street-end of things, black (and white) churches and mosques could set up a network of - call them, I don't know - Cain is Able Sanctuaries, where drug dealers who wish to "get out the game" and enter the apprenticeship program can do so without fear of being arrested and prosecuted.

These human redemption centers would have to be open for a limited-time only, of course, so as to not completely undermine the rule of law.

At the same time, we would have to strengthen community-policing efforts - ranging from building police substations in areas where there are high crime rates to forming neighborhood watch groups. This would be done in conjunction with a new focus on big-time drug traffickers, not small-time peddlers, which would require people like Ollie North and the late William Casey to stop chumming it up with the likes of Manuel Noriega and other international drug lords.

Decriminalizing marijuana use while maintaining criminal sanctions for hard-core drugs like cocaine and heroin might also be a facet of this initiative.

Prisons would, no doubt, need to be restructured so that, for starters, violent offenders are held in separate institutions than nonviolent offenders. This would be accompanied by a renewed emphasis on treatment for inmates with addiction problems and job training.

Prisoners would be responsible to feed themselves through agricultural and farm work. Other in-prison employment could be created where inmates would have to pay for room and board (on some sliding income-based scale) as well as pay restitution to their victims.

Those who opted not to partake in that program would not be released from jail until they could demonstrate to a citizen-elected parole board they were ready to re-enter society as a proverbial productive citizen.

Anything is possible. The Chicago Cubs are in first place in the NL central division and the Red Sox have a shot at the AL pennant this year. OK, well, maybe that's a little extreme but as Kierkegaard said: Hope is the passion for what is possible. Are you hopeful? I am.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist. He can be reached via email: sgonsalves@capecodonline.com