Fiscal conservatives and liberals teaming up to change NM’s drug policy
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Some fiscal conservatives think so and they’re joining with liberals to try to change the way New Mexico — as well as the nation — handles drug users.
The Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque, and the Drug Policy Alliance co-hosted a forum last Tuesday (Oct. 25) that brought a number of Republican and Democratic state lawmakers as well as state government officials together to talk about finding common ground “to map a more rational public safety and health response to drug policy and criminal justice.” (Full disclosure: Capitol Report New Mexico is funded by the Rio Grande Foundation.)
In a nutshell, fiscal conservatives who think there are more financially efficient ways to deal with the drug problem than a “lock ‘em up” mentality are working with traditional liberals who have generally considered the war on drugs a failure from a policy and civil liberties perspective.
“People typically see this as a left-progressive issue — civil liberties, racial justice, whatever,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance told Capitol Report New Mexico. “But if you think of the leading lights historically, it’s William Buckley, it’s Milton Friedman, right here in New Mexico it was Gary Johnson, the only governor in America who embraced wholeheartedly major drug policy reform … so there’s always been that history but it’s sometimes challenging to make that history and that commonality play out in a legislative context.”
But maybe that time is coming.
After all, it is expensive to lock somebody up in the New Mexico prison system. According to the Legislative Council Service, the Corrections Department reported in 2010 that the contract/private prison annual cost of incarcerating a male inmate is $29,853 per year. The cost per client to house a female inmate at a privately operated facility is $34,183 per year.
But doesn’t locking people up lead to a reduction in crime?
Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation argued that it doesn’t, pointing to statistics showing there is no relationship between the incarceration rate and the crime rate. In New York state, for example, the lockup rate between 2000-2007 was down 16 percent, leading one to think that perhaps the crime rate would go up since there would be more bad guys on the streets. Instead, the crime rate between 2000-2007 dropped by 25 percent. Texas had a similar experience during the same time frame.
When it comes to putting people in prison, Levin said, states can be both tough and smart.
“As the former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, said, we have to distinguish between the people we’re mad at and the people we’re afraid of,” Levin told the audience.
So if you don’t put drug offenders in jail, what do you do with them?
Levin says “probation pays; prison doesn’t” and calls on states to bolster their probationary systems. “Make it more than just an office visit,” Levin said, adding that additional measures like drug testing, GPS monitoring and treatment are more cost-effective ways to deal with the situation. “Probation costs 15-20 times less than prision,” Levin said.
But there are significant hurdles.
This past November, California voters had a chance to legalize recreational marijuana but even in that bluest of blue states, the the proposition lost 54-46 percent. If it can’t pass in California, you have to wonder if voters are really ready to make major changes to drug policy.
Here in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez is a former district attorney and while she’s clearly a fiscal conservative, she’s given no indications that she favors any change in the current system. Last December when Capitol Report New Mexico asked Martinez if she would consider early releases for non-violent drug offenders currently in prison, she forcefully said no. The next time we talk to the governor, we’ll ask her if she’s open to a policy of sending first-time, non-violent drug offenders to alternatives besides prison.
Despite obstacles, Nadelmann gave me three reasons why he’s optimistic that change is coming relatively soon:
Here’s a 4-minute interview I conducted with Levin about how and why fiscal conservatives like him are joining with those on the left on drug policy issues:
By the way, you can click here to take a look at the same Powerpoint presentation Levin gave the audience in Albuquerque Oct. 25.
And click here to read a brief paper Levin wrote with Rio Grand Foundation president Paul Gessing about controlling costs in New Mexico prisons.
Posted under Capitol Report.
Tags: Capitol Report New Mexico, drug policy, Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann, Gary Johnson, Jennifer Granholm, Marc Levin, Milton Friedman, Texas Public Policy Foundation, William F Buckley