The treasuries of the nation's state governments, fat with surpluses not long ago, are facing leaner times now, and that could prove to be a boon for the drug reform movement. As the economy began edging into a recession last year and with the aftershocks of the September 11 attacks rippling through it since that date, governors and legislators belatedly began to realize the well was running dry. Some states, driven more by the impulse to cut budgets than by social justice concerns, have already closed prisons; others are moving to enact sentence reductions for drug and other offenders. Drug reformers have a chance to make further progress by targeting the budgetary impact of drug prohibition if they do it wisely, some prominent figures in the movement told DRCNet.
"The recession and the budget crunch in the states is a bigger opportunity for reform than the war on terrorism," said Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org). "Terrorism made people think about priorities; tight budgets will make them think even harder," he told DRCNet. "We've done a great job of laying the groundwork, but now we have to get the public to take the next step. Economic realities may force that hand."
In statehouses across the land, those economic realities are grim, indeed. As early as last October, a report commissioned by the National Governor's Association warned that state and local tax revenues could "very well turn down for the first time on record" (http://www.nga.org/cda/files/TAXREVENUES.pdf). And the latest fiscal outlook report from the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded bluntly in December that "state fiscal conditions continue to deteriorate" (http://126.96.36.199/programs/fiscal/sfo2002.htm). According to the report, 43 states reported revenue shortfalls during the fall and 21 states and the District of Columbia reported spending above budgeted levels. At least 36 states have made or are considering budget cuts in current budgets or for the next fiscal year, the report noted.
Only six states had both spending and revenues within targeted levels, and 21 states are experiencing both spending overruns and lower than expected revenues. Those states, which would appear to be particularly vulnerable to fiscal arguments against expensive prohibitionist drug policies are: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington.
"These budget problems, yes, they are an opportunity," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org). "It will not be an easy fight, but with a well-organized effort, budget battles are something with a lot of potential," he told DRCNet. "Areas where people are asked to make sacrifices will be controversial. In Virginia, for example, incoming Gov. Warner's budget calls for an increase in university tuition. Everybody who pays tuition ought to be asking themselves which makes more sense, forcing me to pay more or keeping thousands of nonviolent offenders in Virginia's prisons?"
The example makes a broader point, said Sterling. "What people need to be asking is how much should we be spending in state funds for our investigations, prosecutions, and incarcerations in low priority drug cases," he said.
Zeese agreed. "Our approach is cheaper and more effective," he said. "If we can get that message out there, we can make progress. The whole Rand Corporation cost-benefit analysis, which showed treatment to be so much more effective than imprisonment or interdiction, well, you'll find that holds true everywhere. The drug czar's TV ad campaign, the DARE program, all are proven failures," said Zeese. "Look at the cost of treating AIDS patients. For pennies we can give them needles, or we can pay thousands to treat them later. The Great Depression was the key to ending alcohol prohibition, and this recession is an opportunity to enact a whole lot of changes now."
Some states aren't waiting for drug reformers to add more pressure. The New York Times reported on January 21 that Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois have all moved to close prisons and lay off guards within the past month. California, which has seen its prison population decline for the first time in years, will not renew contracts with five private prisons later this year. Colorado and Illinois have put new prison plans on hold.
The fear of budget shortfalls is also adding momentum to a California effort to put an initiative on the November ballot that would greatly restrict the number of felons eligible for that state's draconian and expensive three-strikes law, the Times reported.
"My sense is that budget problems are making people ask fundamental questions about whether we can afford to keep on doing what we've been doing," Oregon Department of Corrections assistant director Steven Ickes told the Times. "We are going to have to make some tough choices about prisons versus schools, and about getting a better investment return on how we run our prisons so we don't have so many prisoners re-offending and coming back," Ickes said.
"It is absolutely clear, compelling, and cogent that budget cuts in human services must be balanced against budget cuts for the prison system," said Michael Cutler, national coordinator for the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (http://www.vcl.org), an attorney organization fostering dialogue on drug policy, based on the prohibition-era committee of the same name. "It is that type of pressure that will get both state legislators and voters to begin to ask the type of fundamental questions about bang for the buck that drug reformers have been trying to put on the table for years," he told DRCNet.
But cutting prison budgets isn't the only reform issue that may see progress because of budget considerations, said Cutler. In Massachusetts, he said, criminal justice spending has yet to emerge as a major political issue, but marijuana decriminalization may benefit from the crunch. "There are several decrim bills filed and there is clearly a sense within the legislature that there is money to be saved and very little political risk," said Cutler. "We have 11,000 annual adult arrests for marijuana in Massachusetts, and that costs us about $8 million. Given the budget cuts that have already been imposed and the people at risk for lack of services, that's a lot of money."
Sterling, for his part, cautioned that drug reformers must not come off as opportunists. "Their involvement in the political process needs to be consistent and sustained," Sterling advised. "It also is a critical time of educating allies so that our allies carry the message. You want the teachers' unions saying we're not going to cut public school funding to sustain an excessive prison population and incarceration machinery. We need college tuition-paying parents to say that assuring access to higher education for our youth is more important than locking up low-level drug offenders," he said. "When we talk to people in poor communities, we need to be very clear that maintaining very expensive and ineffective law enforcement approaches may mean that they are especially deprived of the kinds of public programs necessary to protect public health and increase educational and economic opportunities."
Even reflexive support for law enforcement in the wake of September 11 need not be an impassable barrier to reform, said Sterling. "The feeling of being victimized by and vulnerable to terrorism and the resulting desire for vengeance and muscular defense means that arguments based on tenderness are going to be less persuasive," he said. "But if the argument is framed in terms of how do we best protect our infrastructure, our institutions, our schools and neighborhoods from terrorism, then all of our priorities have to be honestly evaluated. Drug enforcement, which is justified as a means of deterring drug use, has proven ineffective," Sterling argued. "We need to challenge ineffective programs and call for their elimination or reduction in this time of scarce public resources and new critical budget priorities."
One point of entry for drug reformers is state sentencing commissions and policy task forces, suggested Cutler. "State legislatures can be encouraged to ask commissions to do cost-benefit analyses of drug policy reforms, such as have been done in California and Arizona," he told DRCNet. "These commissions are usually filled with experienced people who have seen the failures of prohibition in their day-to-day professional lives. And drug reformers can use these commission hearings to put into the record irrefutable statistics that document cost savings from reform and the negative impact on public safety from the failure to enact reform," he said.
"Be organized, get local experts to testify," Cutler urged. "If the decision-makers are fair-minded, at worst you'll get a majority consensus for reform, with a dissent written by prosecutors and prison guard union officials. Then you have something to show the law-makers."
While the budget crunch in the states appears to be a potential opening for drug reformers, it can also, however, result in policy moves in the wrong direction. In Illinois, prison officials have eliminated educational opportunities beyond passing a high school equivalency exam for inmates, citing a $5.4 million savings. In Washington state, Gov. Locke is backing legislation that would reduce some drug and other sentences, but is also leaving the prison budget intact while cutting other areas. And perhaps most disappointingly for drug reformers, in New Mexico, Gov. Johnson's drug law reform package is accompanied by a request for at least $20 million in new prison construction.