In his March 10 letter, Rick Nolan takes Rep. Hans Dunshee to task for questioning the wisdom of building new prisons in our state (“Criminal justice: Laws decide who is, isn’t behind bars”). He implies that state lawmakers have no business questioning laws that cost taxpayers a fortune and provide very little in return. I beg to differ.
In the last 20 years, the U.S. prison population has tripled. In Washington state, it has increased by a factor of 2.5. The U.S. prison population now exceeds 2 million men, women and children, twice the rate of incarceration of Russia and four times the rate of China. The U.S. has a higher percentage of its citizenry in prison than any other country in history, as state and federal legislatures have spent the last 20 years enforcing a “war on drugs” and getting “tough on crime.” In Washington, 22 percent of the prison population is serving time for drug offenses, up from 3 percent in 1980. Citizen’s initiatives for “three strikes and your out” and “hard time for armed crime” have put petty offenders in prison for life. Ironically, the same voters who passed these initiatives rejected an increase in sales tax to pay for operating the new county jail.
The day before Mr. Nolan’s letter, The Herald reported that “the costs associated with arresting suspects, hauling them to court and locking them away last year consumed nearly 70 percent of the county’s annual general fund budget.” While I sympathize with Mr. Nolan’s concern for putting drug dealers back on the streets, his claim that rehabilitation costs exceed the $26,000 annual cost of incarceration is simply wrong. The practice of locking up non-violent drug offenders and sentencing petty criminals to decades in prison has got to stop, and I fully support Mr. Dunshee’s contention that “we’ve got to go in a different direction;” it is long overdue.