War on Drugs Has ‘Catastrophic’ Impact on RI

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


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Civic leaders are calling for Rhode Island to pull out of the war on drugs, saying the state is wasting millions of dollars in taxpayer funds and targeting minorities and the poorest communities in the process.


“We’ve spent millions of dollars on this war,” said Steven Brown, head of the Rhode Island ACLU. “It’s been an absolute catastrophe looking at it on its own terms.”

Brown and other local community leaders said those that had borne the brunt of the war on drugs are the poor and minorities. “We’re overburdened by this war. Things are getting worse and worse and we’re not winning this war,” said James Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP. “Our concern is that people of color are disproportionately targeted in this drug war. It’s devastating for our communities.”

Data obtained by GoLocalProv shows that 68 percent of all sentenced drug offenders are minorities while 32 percent are white. For those who are incarcerated and awaiting trail—and eventually sentencing—the ratio held roughly the same, with 66 percent minorities and 33 percent white, according to data provided by the Department of Corrections in response to a query. (See below charts.)

Cost to RI: $27 million and counting

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The total cost of incarcerating just those with only drug offenses hit $19.5 million last year, according to DOC data. In the state courts, drug cases—from simple possession of marijuana to felony narcotics cases—cost a total of $8.2 million in the 2010 fiscal year, based on a GoLocalProv review of case data and court budgets. (See below for a detailed breakdown of the numbers.)

That means that state devotes a total of $27 million annually on the war on drugs. And that’s not counting additional costs in prosecution and public defenders as well as local law enforcement activities—from investigations to arrests and drug busts.

Some say all that money could be better spent elsewhere. “I think law enforcement is trying their best but I think more needs to be done. I think the emphasis on incarceration without treatment is futile,” said Dennis Langley, head of the Urban League of Rhode Island. “We wish to have these dollars spent on treating these individuals instead of wasting taxpayer money.”

The state does pursue treatment and other alternatives. In fact, the state has an entire court devoted to making this option available. The Rhode Island Adult Drug Court is normally offered to first-time offenders and usually ends with sentencing to treatment or counseling, rather than prison.

‘Our communities can’t stand it anymore’

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But only a small fraction of drug cases end up there. In 2010, the court handled 161 cases and reviewed 85 cases for possible admission to the court at any given time. That stands in marked contrast to a total of 4,571 drug cases filed in the district court system and 1,948 cases that made it to superior court in the most recent one-year period for which the data was available.

Vincent said that those drug offenders caught up in the system are disproportionately minorities. While minorities are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug offenses, than whites, he said minorities do not use or abuse drugs at greater rates. The impact, he said, has been “devastating” to minority communities. “Our young people are paying a disproportionate price and our communities can’t stand it anymore,” Vincent said.

“There’s all the collateral damage that results from jailing someone for an offense like this,” Brown added. “They have families. Obviously when they’re in jail they’re not earning income. They have children who are losing their parent.”

Explanations abound for why more minorities end up in prison for drug offenses than others—and it can’t just be simply chalked up to things like racial profiling, community leaders said. One explanation: More people in wealthier communities are able to satisfy their drug habits through legal prescriptions. That can mask underlying fact that they have similar issues with drug abuse too, Vincent said. “A drug is a drug is a drug,” he said.

Another cause for the disparity: different penalties for powdered cocaine versus crack cocaine, which is more common in poor, urban neighborhoods, Vincent said.

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Police chief defends drug laws

Asked about the disparities among races in drug enforcement, the former head of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, Col. Joseph Moran, said he could not comment until he saw the numbers for himself. But he disputed the claim by the ACLU that drug use is a victimless crime.

He pointed to the state law on driving under the influence, which he said applies to alcohol consumption as well as drug use, including marijuana. “Even marijuana—it’s a dangerous drug,” said Moran, who is chief of police in Central Falls. “Obviously it slows your reaction time when you’re driving.”

He said drug use leads to other crimes when those are addicted are forced to turn to theft or burglary to fund their habit. “It still has an adverse effect on the community,” Moran said. “You’re going to pay one way or the other.”

He said critics of the system are missing the important role that judges can play in the process. Hauling an offender in front of a judge, he said, creates opportunities for them to be sentenced to treatment or counseling that they would otherwise not receive were drugs, like marijuana, legalized.

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Still, Moran says the system isn’t perfect. “I think it’s working in some instances and in others not,” he said. “If somebody has a better solution, I’m always open to listening.”

New push to end the war

As the war on drugs turned 40 this summer, a number of organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU are pushing for it to end—or at least undergo a dramatic overhaul. At the national convention for the NAACP at the end of last month, delegates approved a resolution calling for an end to the “war on drugs.”

“We know that the war on drugs has been a complete failure because in the forty years that we’ve been waging this war, drug use and abuse has not gone down,” said Robert Rooks, director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program. “The only thing we’ve accomplished is becoming the world’s largest incarcerator, sending people with mental health and addiction issues to prison, and creating a system of racial disparities that rivals Jim Crow policies of the 1960’s.”

He was not at the convention, but Vincent said he would have supported the resolution.

BY THE NUMBERS: The War on Drugs in RI

State Prisons

Data as of December 31, 2010
Number of people in state prison: 2,528 people sentenced and 633 awaiting trail
Total number of inmates: 3,161
Of those sentenced: 431 had at least one drug charge
Of those sentenced: 340 had only drug charges
Of those awaiting trial: 221 had at least one drug charge
Of those awaiting trail: 111 had only drug charges
Total number of inmates with only drug charges: 451
■ One fifth of all inmates have at least one drug charge
■ 14 percent of all inmates have only drug charges

Annual cost per inmate: $43,252
Annual cost of incarcerating only those with drug charges: $19,506,652

Source: Department of Corrections

State Judiciary

Cost is a GoLocalProv rough estimate based on the cost per case.
Cost per case calculated by dividing total budgets by total cases disposed.
District Court system: 4,571 drug cases in fiscal year 2010
Cost to District Courts: $1,826,388

Superior Court system: 1,948 drug cases in fiscal year 2010
Cost to Superior Courts: $6,430,620

Total judiciary: $8,257,009

Data source: State Judiciary

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