My experience in working in Hawai’i prisons since the late 1970s (before the “war on drugs” when we had less than 20 women imprisoned in our state compared with about 600 today), and visiting many prisons on all continents except Africa, is that most imprisoned people are poor people. The legal system favors people with money who can pay for good legal representation.

Bryan Stevenson, who works with people serving life sentences and on death row, is right that our system disturbingly favors those with money and punishes the poor more harshly http://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice.html Dorothy Roberts and Michelle Alexander make important points too on how racial biases affect who is incarcerated in the United States http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/books/michelle-alexanders-new-jim-crow-raises-drug-law-debates.html?pagewanted=all While African Americans on the US continent and Hawaiians in Hawai’i are disproportionately imprisoned compared to other ethnic groups, and they are also more often living in poverty compared to other groups.

Far too many imprisoned people in the US and in Hawai’i are there for drug related crimes (both non-violent and violent offenses). After working with hundreds of these people, I believe that most of them used drugs to self-medicate. Being born into a dysfunctional family and/or lacking resources is not an excuse, but it helps explains things: “People do the best they can with the knowledge they have.”

We should hardly be surprised when people who feel bad medicate themselves. Our culture teaches people to use drugs and most of them are legal e.g. alcohol, cigarettes, Ritalin, antidepressants, etc. A lot of people use meth and other stimulants to feel more energy because they are depressed. They want to feel like “superman” because they feel awful.

We have criminalized social problems (poverty and racism) and we suffer the consequences, e.g. lots of recidivism by formerly imprisoned people. And please forget about “throwing away the key” because that is unsustainable. Over 95% of all imprisoned people are eventually released.

The problems of substance abuse and crime will not be “cured” by taking children away from dysfunctional homes — we have done that for many years and we have often made the problems worse — the medical model of “cutting out the tumor” (in this case a messed up family) does not always save the patient. Kids who go to foster care many times end up unattached to loving adults and instead institutionalized.

We can learn from Portugal’s example and treat all crime that is drug related like a public health problem and stop criminalizing it http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=portugal-drug-decriminalization

This includes abandoning “zero tolerance” and understanding that many substance abusers will relapse sometimes. We can’t just give up on them when they do.

Imagine if you have diabetes and you eat some junk food and you go see you doctor and she sees you gained weight and you confess to the bad eating, is she going to throw you out of her office and refuse to keep helping you get well?

One way we could improve things would be by giving people a chance to be accountable for bad behavior. The legal system simply hammers people for bad acts and offers no opportunity to step up to the plate and work on repairing the harm. When is a person convicted of a crime ever asked: “What are you going to do to make things right?”

Instead of being restorative, our legal system focuses mainly on punishment and pain. Simply look up the shocking differences that we spend on convicting and imprisoning people compared to helping crime victims with compensation and their other needs.

Criminologists know that most drug addicts and criminal offenders eventually out grow and age out of their bad behavior without treatment.* It is called “desistance theory.” Shadd Maruna discusses desistance research including his own of over over 1000 people coming out of prison in Making Good: How Ex-convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives.

Most people will eventually desist from crime and drug use with the support of law abiding friends and from having meaningful employment (for each individual to determine). Our prison and legal systems make things worse for people (see Phil Zimbardo’s work with The Stanford Prison Experiment and his book The Lucifer Effect: When Good People Turn Evil).

When we treat someone inhumanely we should not be surprised when they behave that way. Let’s remember and act accordingly: “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” ~ Goethe

*Treatment can hasten desistance and our work is aimed toward that by helping people be accountable, finding ways to restore positive relationships, get employed, stay clean, etc. For more information on this work please see: http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/FederalCourts/PPS/Fedprob/2010-06/06_restorative_circles.html

And thank you Roger Epstein for motivating me to write this blog! Your work with the Hawai’i Forgiveness Project is invaluable http://www.hawaiiforgivenessproject.org/