Mississippi has 78 people each serving 50+ years in prison on a non-violent drug charge, with no eligibility for parole. Twenty-one of them are serving that sentence for simple drug possession. This is a waste of taxpayer dollars and people's lives, and it does nothing to actually address our drug problems.
Paul Houser, of Caledonia, is 11 years into a 60-year sentence for drug possession. Because his sentence prevents parole and earning time off, he will serve every day of it behind bars. That makes him eligible for release when he is 104 years old. We have effectively sentenced him to death in prison for possession of a controlled substance. It is legal for us to do this, but that does not make it right or helpful.
First, lengthy sentences like Mr. Houser’s are costly to taxpayers. These 78 people have already served 1,108 years behind bars, costing Mississippians $16 million. If we do nothing and they serve their full sentences, we will pay a total of nearly $70 million just on their sentences. That does not account for the thousands of others churning through our prisons who are serving sentences less than 50 years on nonviolent drug charges.
Second, lengthy sentences do not decrease drug use or addiction. Drugs are readily available in every prison in this country, so prison certainly is not going to stop anyone from access. It may actually drive them to addiction or make an addiction worse, because our prisons are filled with horrific levels of physical and sexual violence, and research is clear that trauma increases the risk of addiction. Using trauma to address an issue made worse by trauma is counterproductive at best and inhumane at worst.
Third, lengthy sentences do not decrease the sale of drugs. As long as there is demand for a product, there will always be a supplier. We can – and we have – filled our prisons with people charged with selling drugs, and yet drug availability remains untouched. This is predictable because it is the basic economics of supply and demand. Our refusal to allow a regulated market for substances has forced that market underground, where it operates on street corners. But when we take one person off the street corner who is selling and incarcerate them, another person takes their place a few hours later. That street corner currently represents cash. As long as there is demand for a substance, there is cash to be made and a never-ending stream of people willing to break the law to get it. Finite tax dollars locking up an infinite supply of people simply has not worked.
We don’t have the choice for no one to use or sell drugs. But we can choose to address drug use as the complex health issue it is, through prevention and treatment. We can choose to address the drug market by taking these substances off street corners and putting them behind counters where we can regulate potency, purity, and age of access. On the street corner, no one is checking IDs.
Mr. Houser’s drug use is a complex health issue that should have been handled as such. Addressing it through the criminal justice system has failed to help him, failed the taxpayers, and failed to decrease drug harms. Legal regulation is not a perfect solution, nothing is. But it is one of the biggest steps we can take to be fiscally responsible, decrease our prison population, and address drugs and addiction in ways that reduce harm and move Mississippi forward.
Ken Flynt is retired from the bio-technology industry. He lives in Bailey.