Our sentencing laws are extremely harsh and not subject to modification by a judge. We have mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years for some simple drug possession offenses. Once you are a convicted felon you are forever a convicted felon. In Nevada and most states, you lose your right to vote and will not be hired by public entities. You are excluded from some federal loan programs for housing assistance and food assistance. Then, often you are saddled with the repayment of penalties and court costs to the tune of thousands of dollars.
So after you have spent 10 years in jail to “pay” for your crime, you go on paying when you are released. Most released felons can’t get a job that will even pay for their basic essentials much less a huge fine. If they can’t pay the fines or find employment they are subject to being reincarcerated. With this depressing picture in front of them, many ex-felons return to crime just to survive.
If their crime was drug related they most likely will get back into the drug culture. In prison they did not receive much, if any, drug counseling. For some reason we as a society don’t want to pay for anything that will actually benefit a convict but will not set any limit on what we spend to punish him. We are cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Drug counseling costs about one-third of what it takes to incarcerate someone for a year. If we can help them get off drugs then they can rejoin our society as contributing members. But our communal attitude is to force them to do it themselves, if they can. So we feel OK because we gave them a choice, no matter how unrealistic it was. We have no compassion for anyone labeled a criminal.
So who becomes a criminal? Since the 1970s, our prison population has mushroomed as a result of tough drug laws. Thirty years ago, we started the war on drugs and it has gone the way of our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: We have spent a lot of money for very little result. We were fed propaganda that we needed a “war” on drugs. In reality there was no dramatic surge in drug crimes at that time. But by declaring “war,” we funneled a bunch of money to law enforcement and our prison systems. Now they are so dependent on those funds they have to perpetuate the system. It doesn’t take much to get public support: Just scare us with tales of criminals roaming wild in the streets.
We need to stop basing our criminal laws and sentences on our fears and deal with reality. Our state is going broke but no one wants to talk about the costs of prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent offenses because they will be labeled as being soft on crime.
I would really like to see the Nevada Legislature get the facts on the costs of the criminal justice system and then decide how much money we want to spend on someone who has smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine or illegally paid for sex. I’d rather spend more of our money on education, health care and infrastructure before spending it on punishing people.
Jeff Blanck is a civil rights lawyer in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.