When my friend was 20 years old he was caught growing marijuana plants in a tiny closet in his apartment. His driver’s license was suspended and he served two months in jail. Since then, every job application prompts him to admit he’s a criminal convicted of a crime. His arrest set in motion a cycle of unemployment, poverty and low-level crime. His story is tragic and horribly common.
Every day nonviolent drug offenders are jailed at great expense to taxpayers and unfathomable personal cost. Wisconsin spends millions of dollars each year to keep nonviolent drug offenders in prison. Many of those incarcerated are young — in 2016, those aged 25 to 34 represented the greatest percentage of Wisconsin state prison admissions across all drug types. Those aged 24 or younger had the highest percentage of marijuana offenses, and 74 percent of inmates admitted for marijuana charges were under 35.
In Wisconsin, your first marijuana possession offense is a misdemeanor and your second offense is a Class I felony, regardless of possession amount. You can serve 3.5 years in prison and be fined $10,000.
These young Wisconsinites in their teens, 20s, and 30s were just starting their adult lives and beginning to grow careers and families before being abruptly stunted. Suddenly they are thrown into a prison surrounded by violent, hardened criminals and expected to adapt and thereby survive. When they get out, they find themselves plunged into debt and unable to find gainful employment to pay it off. Potential employers have the choice between hiring someone with a criminal record and someone with a clean record. Which is the safer choice for the employer?
Jobless and usually without education beyond the high school level, ex-inmates end up in a cycle of poverty and unemployment. They often end up turning back to the state for food stamps, welfare, or, ultimately, reincarceration.
As of February, 66,664 Wisconsinites were on probation or parole and 23,047 were inmates under the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Of the 9,116 state prison admissions in 2016, 26.9 percent were admitted for drug offenses.
These statistics skyrocket when applied to the federal prison system. As of March 2017, another 81,847 inmates were admitted for drug offenses to federal prisons, making up an alarming 46.3 percent of the federal prison population.
It is a sad irony that the land of the free has the highest incarceration rate in the world, half of whom are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Wisconsinites spend more than a billion dollars each year on our state prison system. We are paying to create criminals out of peaceful citizens. We are paying to take young people out of the workforce and into in the taxpayers’ pocket.
Who do these drug laws benefit? Our streets are not any safer for having 20-year-old kids thrown in prison for smoking marijuana. Rather, our law enforcement has to divide its time between catching violent, dangerous criminals committing rape and murder and arresting college kids splitting a joint.
Last year Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, wrote an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel highlighting the spectacular financial burden of drug laws as well as their lack of providing any kind of solution to addiction. I applaud his decision to point out these problems and am hopeful our state leaders will now take practical steps to lower incarceration rates.
In April, Gov. Walker signed a bill enabling parents of children with seizures the use of cannabinoid oil to treat medical conditions. This legislation is a commendable example of the common-sense approach we need to address criminal justice reform in Wisconsin.
With a Republican majority in the state Senate and Assembly, we have an incredible opportunity to save a massive number of taxpayer dollars, refocus our law enforcement on violent crime, and bring freedom back to the individual. Republicans were elected for their claims to stand for small government and individual liberty. It’s time for them to follow through on their promises.
What can we do about it? Decriminalize marijuana. Save our money and resources to fight violent crime. Heavy-handed drug laws have proven themselves to be a counterproductive, expensive and unethical experiment. Many states are standing up against nonsensical federal drug laws and reaping the benefits through tremendous tax revenue and decreased crime rates.
Wisconsin has the opportunity and responsibility to join half the nation in freeing its citizens of these archaic, prohibition-style laws. The case for decriminalization is economic, practical and compassionate. We cannot wait for federal bureaucrats to release their control on our tax dollars or our young nonviolent offenders’ freedom. It’s time for us to fight for our fellow citizens on the state level.
It’s time for common-sense criminal justice reform.
Mary Mueller grew up in Milwaukee, studied writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and has worked with nonprofits across the country in youth education and public policy reform.
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