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Rethinking the war on drugs

October 25, 2005

Crime has apparently become an equal-opportunity activity, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The report, released Sunday to the Associated Press, says that women are now 7 percent of the inmate population in state and federal prisons. More telling, women now account for one in every four arrests.

In West Virginia, the total prison population grew by 6.6 percent in 2004, from 4,715 to 5,206. With average annual costs for incarcerating one inmate topping $20,000, that's a trend to watch.

Just recently West Virginia opened the Martinsburg Correctional Center, which will function as a temporary home for up to 120 men convicted of felony charges.

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During their stay there, officials will determine whether the offender should do his time at a minimum-, medium- or maximum-security facility. It will require a staff of 73, most or whom will be correctional officers.

All of this growth in the correctional system is part of a trend the study's authors say began in the 1990s, when lawmakers added mandatory minimum sentences for illegal drug users.

A spokesman for The Sentencing Project, which promotes alternatives to prison, said that the number of drug offenders incarcerated nationwide has jumped from 40,000 in 1980 to 450,000 today.

Another group, the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, noted that the number of inmates as grown even as the nation's crime rate dropped.

What isn't clear is whether the crime rate has dropped because more drug offenders were incarcerated or whether there's no correlation between the two.

For the last 25 years, the war on drugs has been fought with increasingly tough sentences, yet the trade shows no signs of drying up. The Bureau of Justice report says the growing number of women being incarcerated is due in large part to their involvement in drug-related offenses. It's time to look at the tactics in this war and consider whether some different weapons are needed.

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