Public Questions Legitimacy of County Jail Planning Team

Report back from County Board meeting on March 22, 2012

Since the proposed plans for the $20 million jail construction project landed on the Champaign County Board agenda earlier this year, the driving force behind this process has been an all-white grouping known as the Jail Space Improvement Planning Team. The team has functioned somewhat like a secret society within the board. While all subcommittees and advisory bodies of the board are supposed to be under the Open Meetings Act (and therefore open to the public and obliged to keep records/minutes of their proceedings), the  leading light of the Planning Team, Board member Tom Betz, has repeatedly claimed that the team falls outside the regulations of Open Meetings. When pressed for minutes of their meetings, County Board Administrator Deb Busey claimed that the group never met and therefore had no minutes.

The Public= “Lunatic Fringe”

At Thursday night’s Board meeting CUCPJ member Aaron Ammons refuted Betz’ and Busey’s claims by producing a three inch stack of the planning team’s email  correspondence obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The 180 pages contained ample evidence of the team’s meetings and deliberations. Ammons also noted that in the emails Betz had frequently referred to those involved in the public participation (the residents and taxpayers of this county) in highly derogatory terms, including at one time labeling them a “lunatic fringe.” Ammons went on to call upon the Board to follow up on its promise at the March 6 meeting to add a person from a “minority-influenced” district to the planning team. He noted that that Carol Ammons of District 5 had acknowledged that she would be willing to serve but the FOIA’d emails showed Betz and company had tried to avoid Ms. Ammons by asking every other  person of color on the Board to serve. Aaron Ammons called on the Board to immediately appoint Ms. Ammons, especially in light of the comment by State’s Attorney Julia Reitz at that same March 6 meeting in which she stated that having a “token person of color” on the team would make no difference.  

Hiding the True Costs of the Jail

Following Ammons, CUCPJ member Jerehme Bamburger noted how the planning team members had consistently avoided answering questions about the projected cost of the jail construction, claiming that such figures were not available. However, the FOIA’d email correspondence showed that as early as January 2011, Deb Busey, had set the jail cost at a figure of $22 million. Yet when Board members Giraldo Rosales, Pattsi Petri and Chris Alix asked for cost estimates she remained silent. When members of the public used a figure of $20 million, Betz derided them for pulling figures out of the air. Yet he himself had been quoted in a November 2011 News-Gazette article estimating the costs in the $12-15 million range.  Bamberger argued this willful evasiveness and suppression of information by members of the planning team mandated the Board to impose some regulations on the team, including holding regular meetings with minutes and providing monthly report backs from those meetings to the Board.

While the hard debates over the jail construction process are yet to come, the public participation to date has forced the Board to take some hard looks at their own lack of transparency and failure to reign in a planning team that seems determined to build a jail regardless of public opinion or the genuine needs of the county. In order to derail this massive jail construction project, CUCPJ along with other individuals and organizations in the community, will have to mobilize a broad cross section of the county residents to pressure their elected officials to spend the money on programs which will improve public safety and quality of life. This doesn’t mean allocating more funds to locking people up but rather focusing on genuine needs like housing, mental health services, substance abuse treatment programs, re-entry support for people returning from prison or jail, job training and youth education. It also means removing the racial discrepancies in how the criminal justice system operates. With all of these pressing needs, throwing $20 million into a jail looks more and more outrageous.


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Hear hear!

Very much agreed. Thanks to all the folks that have been posting on the IMC forums. I am at a loss of words as to why such shenanigans are even tolerated in this day and age.

Communism is alive and well

With all those county Republicans crying, "Big government! Red-tape bureaucracy! Tax and spend!" for little piddly stuff like a food council, it's surprising they don't do the same at this $22 million maximum-security jail expansion. If spending $22 million on a maximum-security jail expansion is such a good idea, why are they hiding the process from the voters, and why won't they allow the taxpayers who pay for it, vote on it? What a bunch of hypocrites! Our own little politburo right here in Champaign County. Does jailing poor and black people feel so good that the Republicans would throw democracy aside? I once thought Stan James a decent representative, but now I'm organizing Rantoul citizens to throw him to the coward's bin.

Agreed on the Sentiment, Terminology Is Baffling

I certainly agree that the county board has its share of hypocrites. They should have to justify any dollar spent on it and there has been nada, zip on that. The premise seems to be that the public should be willing the injustice system's desire to maintain its failed policies without question.

The sleazy way in which this matter is being handled indicates they don't want anyone to get a chance to raise basic questions, because they know the answer will not support either and expansion of the jail or one-for-one replacement of beds.

The only reason there's the higher population in the last 30 years is the drug war -- a massive policy failure in itself. Both the drug war and a bigger jail made exactly NO difference, if anything aggravated things, because the drug war's only success has been to act as a price support mechanism for the cartels.

That and act as a cushy jobs program for fat white guys -- speaking as a fat white guy myself.

However, this has nothing to do with communism, either logically or in fact. In fact, you're probably doing a disservice to communists. Maybe you're fixated in coming up with an easy, politically-correct cardboard cut-out boogieman to illustrate your argument, but the last time I checked the county board, including all too many Democrats unfortunately, are prisoners to a political philosophy considerably to the right of Marxism-Leninism. Fascism, maybe, is at the root of the rush to fund a new jail without any questions being raised.

However, you may have a point in that a new jail could come in handy to rehabilitate failed politicians after the revolution. But I speak somewhat facetiously and purely as a educational, short term means to put the shoe on the other foot and enlighten people about the consequences of their misshapen social attitudes and policies.

I wouldn't go so far as to advocate mandatory minimums for pandering to fascism in the name of another monument to our racist injustice system, for instance, because we know that doesn't work. Although that does make a seductive campaign slogan for some politicians pandering to the baser motivations of thoughtless voters, it just doesn't work and is far too expensive.

Terminology is dead on

Actually, given that socialist/communist nations are well-known for their massive prison systems and extreme punishment of anyone with a dissenting opinion, I feel the comparison is pretty accurate.

Your Strawman

"...given that socialist/communist nations are well-known for their massive prison systems and extreme punishment..."

Nice soundbite, but it's not true. Unless you already consider the US to be a "socialist/communist nation" presuming there's anything to your logic. Why?

"The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."

Many people who make such uninformed and ignorant comments often consider the US to be a "socialist/communist nation," mostly because they posit Obama as a "socialist/communist." But US politicians' love affair with imposing a prison/industrial complex on _selected parts_ of the US population is rather more similar to the Nazi penchant for racial cleansing than it is to the abuses that take place in most "socialist/communist nations." This was going on long before Obama was old enough to be prez.

Then there are the actual rates of imprisonment in various nations. Some people [for instance, trolls?] think that most countries in Europe qualify as being "socialist/communist nations." But the rate of imprisonment in Sweden, a nation with a long history of democratic socialism, is 78/100,000 population.

Russia, ostensibly a formerly "socialist/communist nation," has a rate of 534/100,000. China, supposedly a "socialist/communist nation," has a rate of 122/100,000. There seem to be significant numbers of prisoners in China in "administrative detention" connected to dissent, but even adding all of them in wouldn't even get close to the US rate, which is 743/100,000, far ahead of ANY other nation.

I agree with you that the idea that Champaign County should just build a new jail without any attempt to evaluate need based on concrete data about the success of the present jail for doing anything other than sucking up tax money in the name of cheap campaign slogans for two-bit local good ol' boys is BOGUS.

But if you're planning on taking a test this semester in political science, it looks like it's about time you cracked open your textbook, because your comment reflects flagrant ignorance of everyday reality. That does make you qualified in this county to run for county board, though, so maybe you're just posturing?

The New Jim Crow: The War on Drugs & the Black Undercaste

by Michelle Alexander

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African American adults under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste -- not class, caste -- permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades -- they are currently at historical lows -- but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. The main driver has been the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population between 1985 and 2000, the period of our prison system’s most dramatic expansion.

The drug war has been brutal -- complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods -- but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. President Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term “a war on drugs,” but it was President Reagan who turned the rhetorical war into a literal one. From the outset, the war had relatively little to do with drug crime and much to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes -- sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes... in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders. Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s -- the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war -- nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time -- a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers -- not to mention president of the United States -- causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure: the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

© 2012 Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander is the author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

re: the new jim crow


I read Alexander's book over Christmas 2010 and dearly wanted to find a local book discussion on it. I see at least one other person has looked into it. :)
-- charles schultz

How to Build a Better Justice System

I know most of our local politicians are trying to avoid this conversation, led by Ms. Rietz, but stupid is as stupid does so long as you insist on wallowing in ignorance, superstition, and get-elected-at-any-cost politics. Given 30 years of BIG JAILS has pretty much nothing to show for it it except the cost to the taxpayers, here are some very thoughtful ideas about how things can be different and better.

Tough on Crime, Tough on Justice

by Leonard Pitts Jr.

So the people got sick of it, all those criminals being coddled by all those bleeding heart liberal judges with all their soft-headed concern for rights and rehabilitation. And a wave swept this country in the Reagan years, a wave ridden by pundits and politicians seeking power, a wave that said, no mercy, no more. From now on, judges would be severely limited in the sentences they could hand down for certain crimes, required to impose certain punishments whether or not they thought those punishments fit the circumstances at hand. From now on, there was a new mantra in American justice. From now on, we would be "tough on crime."

We got tough on Jerry Dewayne Williams, a small-time criminal who stole a slice of pizza from a group of children. He got 25 years.

We got tough on Duane Silva, a guy with an IQ of 71 who stole a VCR and a coin collection. He got 30 to life.

We got tough on Dixie Shanahan, who shot and killed the husband who had beaten her for three days straight, punching her in the face, pounding her in the stomach, dragging her by the hair, because she refused to have an abortion. She got 50 years.

We got tough on Jeff Berryhill, who got drunk one night, kicked in an apartment door and punched a guy who was inside with Berryhill's girlfriend. He got 25 years.

Now, we have gotten tough on Marissa Alexander. She is the Jacksonville, Fla., woman who said her husband flew into a violent rage and tried to strangle her when he found text messages to her first husband on her phone. She said she fled to her car, but in her haste, forgot her keys. She took a pistol from the garage and returned to the house for them. When her husband came after her again, she fired -- into the ceiling. The warning shot made him back off. No one was hurt.

Like Ms. Shanahan before her, Ms. Alexander was offered a plea bargain. Like Ms. Shanahan, she declined, reasoning that no one would convict her under the circumstances. Like Ms. Shanahan, she was wrong.

Earlier this month, Ms. Alexander got 20 years for aggravated assault. And like Ms. Shanahan, like Messrs. Berryhill, Williams, Silva and lord only knows how many others, she received that outlandish sentence not because the judge had a heart like Simon Legree's, but because he was constrained by so-called "mandatory-minimum" sentencing guidelines that tie judges' hands, allow them no leeway for consideration, compassion, context or common sense. In other words, they prohibit judges from judging.

Charles Smith, the judge who sent Ms. Shanahan away, put it best. He said the sentence he was required to impose "may be legal, but it is wrong." Amen.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." In a nation where we execute people based on no evidence save eyewitness testimony, it is hard to imagine what meaning that prohibition still holds. But assuming it means anything, surely it means you can't draw a 20-year sentence for shooting a ceiling.

Except that Ms. Alexander just did.

In restricting judges from judging, we have instituted a one-size-fits-all version of justice that bears little resemblance to the real thing. It proceeds from the same misguided thinking that produced the absurd "zero tolerance" school drug policies that routinely get children suspended for bringing aspirin and Midol to class. In both cases, there is this silly idea that by requiring robotic adherence to inflexible rules we will produce desirable results.

By now, it should be obvious how wrongheaded and costly that reasoning was -- and how urgently we need to roll back the wave that swept over us in the Reagan years. It is understandable that the nation wanted to get tough on crime.

But we have been rather hard on justice, too.

© 2012 The Baltimore Sun

Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday in the Miami Herald. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

Numbers Tell of Failure in Drug War

by Eduardo Porter

When policy makers in Washington worry about Mexico these days, they think in terms of a handful of numbers: Mexico’s 19,500 hectares devoted to poppy cultivation for heroin; its 17,500 hectares growing cannabis; the 95 percent of American cocaine imports brought by Mexican cartels through Mexico and Central America.

They are thinking about the wrong numbers. If there is one number that embodies the seemingly intractable challenge imposed by the illegal drug trade on the relationship between the United States and Mexico, it is $177.26. That is the retail price, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data, of one gram of pure cocaine from your typical local pusher. That is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago.

This number contains pretty much all you need to evaluate the Mexican and American governments’ “war” to eradicate illegal drugs from the streets of the United States. They would do well to heed its message. What it says is that the struggle on which they have spent billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of lives over the last four decades has failed.

There is little reason to expect the elections this year will do much to address the challenges to the bilateral relationship. Enrique Peña Nieto, elected president of Mexico on Sunday, is a scion of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was tainted by authoritarianism, corruption and fraud during seven decades in power, before it was booted out by voters 12 years ago. In the United States, neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has shown much interest in the nation’s southern neighbor.

Yet the presidential elections on both sides of the border offer a unique opportunity to re-examine the central flaws of the two countries’ strategy against illegal narcotics. Its threadbare victories — a drug seizure here, a captured kingpin there — pale against its cost in blood and treasure. And its collateral damage, measured in terms of social harm, has become too intense to ignore.

Most important, conceived to eradicate the illegal drug market, the war on drugs cannot be won. Once they understand this, the Mexican and American governments may consider refocusing their strategies to take aim at what really matters: the health and security of their citizens, communities and nations.

Prices match supply with demand. If the supply of an illicit drug were to fall, say because the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped it from reaching the nation’s shores, we should expect its price to go up.

That is not what happened with cocaine. Despite billions spent on measures from spraying coca fields high in the Andes to jailing local dealers in Miami or Washington, a gram of cocaine cost about 16 percent less last year than it did in 2001. The drop is similar for heroin and methamphetamine. The only drug that has not experienced a significant fall in price is marijuana.

And it’s not as if we’ve lost our taste for the stuff, either. About 40 percent of high school seniors admit to having taken some illegal drug in the last year — up from 30 percent two decades ago, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The use of hard drugs, meanwhile, has remained roughly stable over the last two decades, rising by a few percentage points in the 1990s and declining by a few percentage points over the last decade, with consumption patterns moving from one drug to another according to fashion and ease of purchase.

For instance, 2.9 percent of high school seniors admit to having tried cocaine in the last year, just slightly less than in 1992. About 15 percent of seniors said they abused a prescription drug last year. Twenty years ago, prescription drug abuse was not even consistently measured.

The only dimension along which the war on drugs might be conceived as a success is political. If you ask Americans how concerned they are about drugs, they will give you roughly the same answer they have given for years: not so much.

In a Gallup poll, only 31 percent of Americans said they thought the government was making much progress dealing with illegal drugs, the lowest share since 1997. But fewer people say they worry about drug abuse than 10 years ago. Only 29 percent of Americans think it is an extremely or very serious problem where they live, the lowest share in the last decade.

But the government has spent $20 billion to $25 billion a year on counternarcotics efforts over the last decade. That is a pretty high price tag for political cover, to stop drugs from becoming a prominent issue on voters’ radar screen. It becomes unacceptably high if you add in the real costs of the drug wars. That includes more than 55,000 Mexicans and tens of thousands of Central Americans killed by drug-fueled violence since Mexico’s departing president, Felipe Calderón, declared war six years ago against the traffickers ferrying drugs across the border.

And the domestic costs are enormous, too. Almost one in five inmates in state prisons and half of those in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations. Four out of five arrests were for possession. Nearly half were for possession of often-tiny amounts of marijuana.

Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York, told me that processing each of the roughly 85,000 arrests for drug misdemeanors in New York City last year cost the city $1,500 to $2,000. And that is just the cost to the budget. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly black and poor, are unable to get a job, a credit card or even an apartment to rent because of the lasting stigma of a criminal record for carrying an ounce of marijuana.

Cracking down hard on drug users may sound great on the stump. But Americans who inject drugs are four times as likely to have H.I.V. as British addicts and seven times as likely as drug-injecting Swiss, mainly because the United States has been much slower in introducing needle exchanges and other measures to address the impact of drug abuse on public health.

The Obama administration acknowledges the limitations of the drug wars, and has shifted its priorities, focusing more on drug abuse prevention and treatment of addicts, and less on enforcement.

Still, many critics of the current policy believe the solution is to legalize — to bring illegal drugs out of the shadows where they are controlled by criminal gangs, into the light of the legal market where they can be regulated and taxed by the government.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard who studies drug policy closely, has suggested that legalizing all illicit drugs would produce net benefits to the United States of some $65 billion a year, mostly by cutting public spending on enforcement as well as through reduced crime and corruption.

A study by analysts at the RAND Corporation, a California research organization, suggested that if marijuana were legalized in California and the drug spilled from there to other states, Mexican drug cartels would lose about a fifth of their annual income of some $6.5 billion from illegal exports to the United States.

A growing array of Latin American presidents have asked for the United States to consider legalizing some drugs, like marijuana. Even Mr. Calderón is realizing the futility of the war against the narco-syndicates. He asked President Obama and the United States Congress last month to consider “market solutions” to reduce the cash flow to criminal groups.

Legalization may carry risks, too. Peter H. Reuter, one of the authors of the RAND study, who is now a professor of public policy in the department of criminology of the University of Maryland, said he worried that legalizing drugs would vastly expand drug abuse, leading to other potential social and health costs. Supporters of the war on drugs insist that without it, consumption would have soared to the heights of the 1980s and perhaps beyond.

There are other options. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose membership includes former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Poland, has called on national governments to “depenalize” if not necessarily legalize drug possession and sales.

This means stopping the arrest and imprisonment of people who use drugs but cause no harm to others, and going easy on small-scale dealers, whose arrest does nothing to dent the flow of illegal drugs. It means focusing enforcement efforts on reducing the violence of the drug trade, rather than eliminating the drug market itself. It may also entail giving drugs to the most addicted users, to get them into clinics and off the streets.

Such policies require a drastic change of approach in Mexico and the United States. Their governments could start by acknowledging that drug dependence is a complex condition that is not solved through punishment, and that numbers of addicts or dealers arrested, or tons of drugs seized, are hardly measures of success.

A war on drugs whose objective is to eradicate the drug market — to stop drugs from arriving in the United States and stop Americans from swallowing, smoking, inhaling or injecting them — is a war that cannot be won. What we care about is the harm that drugs, drug trafficking and drug policy do to individuals, society and even national security. Reducing this harm is a goal worth fighting for.


Twitter: @portereduardo

Copyright 2012 The New York Times

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