Legalize It–Like, All of It

“In this regard, I thought, the people of Beeville had come to believe about crime in the 1990s what Americans had believed about communism in the 1950s: that its threat lurked everywhere at all times, and could be stemmed only by the creation of a vast military-industrial complex—except that now it was a prison-industrial complex… [Sentencing reform] laws have been almost single-handedly responsible for the soaring federal prison population. In 1987…there were only 44,000 federal prisoners. By 2000, there were nearly 140,000. Most—59 percent—are serving time for drug offenses.” – Joseph Hallinan, Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation

I recently read excerpts of Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph Hallinan, among many other pieces on prisons in the United States, for some of my classes. Almost every reading mentions the War on Drugs and the subsequent massive increase in prison population (see figure). If you take more than five seconds to think about what happened between the beginning of the War on Drugs and today, you’ll realize that society today is no more dangerous than it was in the 1980s (let’s be honest–it’s probably a whole lot safer). Crime has not become a sudden issue. Drugs have not become a sudden issue. We just started cracking down on drug possession, use, and distribution to the point that it would appear that we have an uncontrollable drug pandemic on our hands.

Arrests cost money. Public defenders, judges, courtrooms cost money. Holding cells, jails, prisons cost money. Food, health care, heat, education, rehabilitation cost money. What if we’re not just spending money on these things but wasting money?

That’s when it occurred to me. All drugs in the United States should be legalized. Here’s why. Since the 1980s—the onset of the “war on drugs”—the proportion of drug offenders in prisons has risen so dramatically that today, about half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses. (Joseph Hallinan’s figures are dated; his book was published over a decade ago.) If about 90,000 federal prisoners are drug offenders and each costs approximately $30,000 per annum, these offenders alone cost the government about $2.7 billion a year—to say nothing of state- and local-level inmates who cost money to their respective states, counties, and municipalities.

Aside from holding costs such as food and facilities, drug offenders who enter the justice system also cost the government an unknowable amount in public defenders’ time, jail and other temporary facility costs, and police officers’ time. Most significantly, health care costs for imprisoned drug offenders almost certainly surpass those for other prisoners because many (if not most) drug offenders are also addicts who require additional medical attention.

People who enter the prison system inevitably leave prison with a recidivism likelihood greater than 0, a greater chance of struggling to assimilate into normal society, and a higher chance of remaining unemployed once released. Legalizing all drugs would virtually rid our federal prisons of drug offenders, saving the government billions that could be put to much better use. For example, if the government saves about $2.7 billion a year, state governments could apply the funding to strengthening inner city public schools, launching after-school programs for urban youth, issuing anti-violence/poverty/drug campaigns, and opening drug rehabilitation and education centers in cities with high rates of users.

Harmful drug use should still be grounds for child/family services to revoke parenting rights, and drug use and abuse should still be discouraged and actively fought by the federal and state governments. Individuals should still be arrested and prosecuted for crimes committed while under the influence of drugs, and selling drugs to minors should still be illegal. But arresting and incarcerating individuals for drug distribution, sales, possession, and use is useless, costly, and statistically doesn’t stop people from using, abusing, or possessing the same drugs in the future.

But since we’re not realistically going to legalize hard drugs in this country, I’d argue that the decriminalization of drugs would be a reasonable option and a step in the right direction.

Regardless, however, the decision to legalize or decriminalize would likely be decided at the state level. To circumvent the likely case that state legislatures would balk at the idea of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, if we’re ever trying to cut the budget, the federal government should withhold funding for state and federal prisons/jails/courts in any state that does not change its drug laws (much like the federal government’s withholding of Federal Highway Act funding if states did not agree to raise their drinking age to 21 in the 1950s). Under the threat of losing necessary funding for their penal systems, states would ideally comply with the federal government strong recommendation that states reconsider and reform their drug laws.

Every resident of this country has a vested interest in our drug laws. Keeping drug offenders out of jails, prisons, and courtrooms would save the justice system billions of dollars a year—and the per capita cost of all other prisoners would in fact decrease due to the extra cost of health care for drug offenders compared with the health care costs for all other offenders. Holding drug offenders in the criminal justice system costs more than it’s worth—and the possibility of rehabilitation is effectively zero. We should never take drug use lightly, however, and we should certainly not ignore it as a society. Drug offenders in inner cities often lead bleak lives in poverty, among violence, and with little hope of recovery. Many are born addicted to mothers who cannot raise them, and many more become addicted at a shockingly young age. Still, locking them away is not only the wrong answer–it is counterproductive to our goal of grooming a functioning, contributing citizenry.

It seems, Joseph Hallinan suggests, that we have come to correlate the prevalence of crime with the vast numbers of drug offenders behind bars, thereby equating drugs with imminent danger. Imprisoning drug offenders has not decreased the number of drug offenders who roam our city streets (slash Wall Street). Imprisoning drug offenders has not sparked massive rehabilitation efforts by states to halt this epidemic. So then, why do we continue to believe that imprisoning drug offenders makes us safer? Why, in Hallinan’s account, do the residents of Beeville believe that they are surrounded by crime when they only experienced three robberies in a year and no violent crime?

By their nature, drug users already suffer every day, and serving jail time is often more preferable to them than living in poverty looking for a fix. If prison doesn’t punish or rehabilitate these offenders, and if they almost always return to drugs when they return to the street, why should we waste resources imprisoning them in the first place when their imprisonment makes us no safer–and when their freedom presents no greater danger to us?

Guaranteed Basic Income: Crazy, or So Crazy It Just Might Work?

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, this story appeared, posing the question: Should the government pay you to be alive? And it wasn’t rhetorical or just trying to be funny. It’s a serious question that, according to the article, economists and policy experts on both sides of the aisle have suggested as a strategy for alleviating poverty and avoiding the expansion of our overcomplicated welfare programs.

If you want to see what the people had to say about this–and this is probably the best part of the entire article–read the comments it got. Gems, one and all. But here’s what I think.

This is never, ever going to happen in the United States. Forget whether or not it’s plausible or actually has any merit–the simple fact is that it sounds ludicrous, and that’s all that matters. Guaranteed basic income (GBI) sounds like an uber-liberal utopian policy that gives a whole new meaning to the term “government handouts” in the worst way possible. Rhetorically it’s dead on arrival, but I’ll come back to this later.

Should a government have the responsibility to guarantee each citizen a flat rate income? For the sake of argument, let’s just say yes for a second. If everyone starts with the same basic income, aren’t we also guaranteeing inflation? The new “zero” would now be $10,000 or $80,000 or any other amount suggested by the article, and I can think of too many ways certain industries may take advantage of this (down payments on everything from homes to cars rise dramatically overnight, college tuition skyrockets, all types of insurance rates increase…). The moving pieces of the economy adjust and nullify any amount the government could ever hope to give out. A cynic might shrug and suggest that you might as well start at $0 if your $10,000 gets you next to nothing.

But perhaps if you’re trying to feed and clothe a family, $10,000 is a huge help. Maybe you can’t buy a house with it, maybe you can’t even buy and insure a car, but at least you can purchase enough food, clothes, school supplies, and basic necessities to get by, day-to-day. This raises another question altogether, however: What exactly is the goal of a guaranteed basic income? Is it to alleviate poverty? If so, it could temporarily raise families out of destitute situations, to be sure, but does it solve any long-term issues that impoverished families face? Housing? Transportation? Insurance plans? Savings accounts? Would a guaranteed basic income help tide over a family with two unemployed parents long enough so that they can get jobs to earn a healthier income?

Is the goal of a guaranteed basic income to get simplify or eliminate welfare programs? If so, it would probably do a great job of that. It cuts through all the red tape and just hands over the money without any of the mess. Of course, you’d still run into the issue of whether to provide a GBI to each citizen at the age of 18 or 21 years of age (an 18-year-old can fight in a war, vote, and buy porn, but can’t collect a GBI?). Then you run into the problem of undocumented residents over the age of 18 or 21 who can’t receive a GBI because they don’t have social security numbers, many of whom were involuntarily brought to the United States as children.

And then you get into whether or not you’d have to pay taxes on the GBI, which seems nuts seeing as the money comes from the government in the first place, but the underlying question becomes whether the GBI acts as a supplemental income or as an allowance. That is, if you’re comparing a person making $0 gets $10,000 a year (total: $10,000) and a person making $100,000 gets $10,000 a year (total: $110,000), how do you measure how much each pays in income tax? Does the wealthier individual pay a percentage of $110,000 or $100,000? Does the poorer individual pay a percentage of $10,000, or does he avoid paying taxes altogether? Does he only pay income taxes if his total income rises above a certain amount? Under our current tax code, the person making only a GBI have his income decimated by taxes (assuming he has to pay anything), whereas the person supplementing his income with the GBI would barely feel a difference.

There are more questions than answers when it comes to GBI, and before we can have a debate, we need to define the parameters of the discussion. To start, “guaranteed basic income” sounds like the government would be giving out lump sums of money for free, no labor necessary, as if its existence is encompassed somewhere in “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what it is. But there’s got to be some better way to say it, a better way to define it, so that we can actually talk about it. Scholars, according to the article, have already started talking about the GBI–when will everyone else join in?

If you say it out loud, the concept behind a GBI sounds crazy. But in practice, maybe it’s so crazy that it just might work. Given what I’ve observed and read and learned about poverty in America, guaranteed basic income can’t possibly be any worse for poor people, in effect, than our current welfare programs. If anyone wants to seriously discuss the GBI, however, someone’s got to start by coming up with a better name for it. Maybe “BetterFare” or “Lifeline Credit” or “Starting Point.” I don’t know, just anything that doesn’t make me immediately think “free money.” Let’s just start there and see what happens.