Voices From the Crowd: Reassessing What We Call Crime

The struggle to get adequate funding for the Columbia County jail has an eerily familiar ring to it.  For those who believe that history has a habit of repeating itself, consider the following.

The gulag prison system of Stalinist Russia was created to punish dangerous criminals, but expanded into an institution that punished just about everyone who was convicted of anything, including petty criminals and political dissidents.  Very soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviets abandoned the gulags, not because they ran out of dissidents, but because they ran out of money.

According to 2013 data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 50% of all federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges and 10.6% are in for immigration-related crimes.  Throw in all the white collar crooks and very quickly you will see that fully two thirds of the prison population is made up of non-violent criminals.  Although these numbers cover only federal prisons, it is important to remember that virtually every person arrested on suspicion of (take your pick) begins their incarceration in a county jail.

A buzz phrase like “Let’s Get Tough on Crime” fits neatly on a bumper sticker.  It may generate some heat, but it provides no light.  We’ve been locking up otherwise law-abiding citizens for drug crimes since the Nixon administration, yet the addiction rate is roughly the same today as it was then.  Same story for people entering the country illegally.  Albert Einstein was correct in saying that repeating the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome amounts to insanity. 

Before adopting a knee jerk get-tough-on-crime approach, maybe we should reassess what we call crime.  Let’s start with drug “crimes”.  In the medical community, addiction is viewed as a medical problem, not a criminal problem.  There is no controversy on that issue.  The criminal justice industry has always looked at drugs as a supply problem instead of a demand problem and have treated it as such.  After 60 some years of addressing street drugs in that manner, we have a very clear picture of the cost : benefit ratio, which is dismal at best.

What if our bumper stickers read “Let’s Get Tough on Addiction” instead?  We know what it costs to lock up an addict for a year.  What is the cost to provide counseling and therapy for the same period?  Oregon taxpayers spend more money on prisons than on higher education.  Does a dollar spent on incarceration yield more benefits than the same dollar spent on education?  As a state – and really, as a nation – we’ve never had that discussion.  No smart business person would ever make a choice between two options without running the numbers first.

If Oregon in general and Columbia County in particular had money to burn, this discussion would be unnecessary.  However, money is a finite resource and the demands are diverse.  Before spending a nickel anywhere, let’s get out a magnifying glass first.  Let’s not do anything tomorrow just because we did it that way yesterday.