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The cost of public safety

June 14, 2009|By LLOYD "PETE" WATERS

A taxpayer's money is spent in many different ways. Have you ever paused to think about the money spent on public safety? Does it make you feel safe?

If you look at the money that has been spent by the various states to lock people up since the 1980s, you might have thought that we have more money than we have sense. Locking up the violent criminal seems right and just in terms of protecting society.

On the other hand, incarcerating nonviolent prisoners at a substantial cost does not seem altogether logical.

The war on drugs, I believe, has made the taxpayer a fatality.

In the 1980s, 41,000 drug offenders were in prison. Today, we have 500,000, or an increase of some 1,200 percent. Based on these statistics, I'm not convinced we are winning the war on drugs, and if we are, we are paying a dear price for that victory.

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I'm no longer convinced we can continue to pay that bill.

Our democracy has 5 percent of the world's population, yet our country financially supports some 25 percent of the world's "prison" population. Our incarceration rate is five times as high as the rest of the world. Those politicians with the keys have demonstrated real progress, huh?

Former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, in the 1970s, thought he could cure the potential drug problem by locking up all of the drug users.

We voters thought that smart at the time, but never asked what it was going to cost us.

One can make a serious argument for locking up those violent and habitual offenders, but a new debate is beginning to surface as the economic gloom takes its toll on state budgets.

In California, some of the budgetary deficit was directly linked to the laws and public safety practices of that state.

Michigan, too, is considering the release of 12,000 nonviolent inmates to help confront a substantial state deficit. New York, Kentucky and Kansas have recently realized that their hard stance on punishment might need some softening if their budgets are to survive.

Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has suggested that the entire criminal justice system is "a national disgrace."

He has suggested that too many people are being locked up, and has called for a national commission to study the entire system.

The drug laws in this country have failed to fix the problem of drug abuse. Incarceration, truth be known, probably only makes the offender worse.

As the taxpayer comes to realize that they are paying almost $22,000 to $49,000 (depending on the state) to incarcerate a drug abuser, perhaps now is the time to review another approach to the problem.

The State of Maryland, too, might benefit from a closer examination of this issue.

Every time you, as a taxpayer, are subjected to another tax increase, ask your political representative what "specifically" you are getting for the billion-plus dollars the State of Maryland currently spends on public safety. You might be surprised!

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident

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