Friday, September 2, 2016

Where the War on Drugs (and Sanity) Lives On

You Better Watch Yourself 'Round These Parts:

A collection of small, quiet towns near the Ohio River, Dearborn County does not look like a prison capital. Violent crime is rare. There are few empty storefronts. And local officials, flush with money brought in by a popular local casino, have built a convention center and a high school football field fit for a movie set.

But the extraordinarily high incarceration rate here — about one in 10 adults is in prison, jail or probation — is driven less by crime and poverty than by a powerful prosecutor, hard-line judges and a growing heroin epidemic.

“I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. “That’s how we keep it safe here.”

Opioid addiction spread early here. Mr. Negangard, the prosecutor, has fought the heroin crisis by aggressively going after drug crimes.

“If you’re not prosecuting, then you’re de facto legalizing it,” Mr. Negangard said.

Mr. Negangard has faced few obstacles to getting more convictions. He supervises his own police force, an unusual arrangement that allows him to investigate and prosecute most of the county’s serious crime. The police go after even minor drug cases, often offering to dismiss drug possession charges in exchange for information on friends or family members who sell drugs.

Probation officials are just as strict. Offenders released on probation are tested for drugs frequently, and hundreds of people who violate the terms of their probation have been sent to state prison in the past few years.

By 2014, Dearborn County sentenced more people to prison than San Francisco or Westchester County, N.Y., which each have at least 13 times as many people. 

“It’s government run amok,” said Douglas A. Garner, a local criminal defense attorney.
It's also representative of what I have been talking about on this blog for the past few years: that despite the "smart on crime," de-carceration, let's reduce sentences happy talk, and the fact that crime is at an all-time low (even in areas who send virtually no one to prison), nothing is actually being done, and the prison population is barely moving downward.

It's in these backwater, rural, time stopped 30 years ago, counties and small towns where the War on Drugs rages on and prospers. It's like that great Netflix series from this summer "Stranger Things"...government conspiracies, the 1980's, aliens and monsters, all still holding political office and sending people to prison in a time warp. And it's not just in Nowheresville, Indiana.
The rural resistance to lighter penalties goes beyond Indiana.

Prosecutors in New York City have sharply cut incarceration rates in part by diverting drug offenders from prison after state changes encouraged paths to treatment. But in the rest of the state, prosecutors and judges continue to put drug offenders in prison at a steady flow.

In Texas, a series of changes intended to cut the prison population led to large reductions in new prisoners from Houston and Austin. But the rest of the state has had only modest declines.
Disparate prosecution and sentencing has always been a problem, of course. As the story points out, if the guys charged and convicted in Dearborn (getting 30 years+ each) had been charged and convicted across the river in Cincinnati, they might not have done any time at all because they would have been diverted into Drug Courts, which handle these non-violent crimes differently with treatment and fines. And the excuse that smaller jurisdictions don't have the resources to implement those kinds of specialty courts is absurd (the State of Indiana makes the monies available, the local prosecutor and judges choose whether to use the money and set them up). 

Perhaps the most troubling fact in the article is that the prosecutor allegedly "supervises his own police force." I'm not sure, constitutionally, how that's even possible, but it certainly is indicative of how crime and punishment is still a lucrative source of political capital on the local level, and that the git tuff, brain dead mindset from the bad old days of the 80's and 90's lives on in Podunk, USA. 

Until the opioid/meth problem is addressed as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, myopic prosecutors will continue filling our jails and prisons with non-violent criminals who simply don't belong there. And while the urban centers continue to get smart and reduce the numbers of defendants they send to prison, the suburbs and rural areas will continue making up the numbers. 

And the U.S. will continue to incarcerate more people than any other country on the planet.

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