George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Lock ’em up? No⁠t⁠ so fas⁠t⁠! 1 key move could boos⁠t⁠ U.S. economy

By: The James Madison Institute / 2017

The exploding opioid crisis in America is fueling a renewed push for criminal-justice reform, and a prominent grassroots activist says conservatives would be wise to take up the mantle to shrink the size of government and put more productive citizens back into the U.S. economy.

In October, President Trump declared a public health emergency over the horrifying number of opioid deaths and addictions around the nation. James Madison Institute President and CEO Bob McClure told WND and Radio America the way states treat drug addicts is costly and counterproductive.

“Our criminal justice system is overloaded and in dire need of reform,” McClure said. “The effort needs to be led by states, not bureaucrats who want to protect their turf.”

According to McClure, the turf wars consist of prisons fighting for every penny they can get, just like every other office in government. He said the rising incarceration rate leads to stretched resources at the prisons and a lack of money where it could do a lot more good.

“Every dollar that is spent incarcerating an addict is a dollar we cannot spend treating the addict, getting him or her a path to becoming a productive, taxpaying citizen,” McClure said. “It’s a dollar we can’t spend on funding schools or the environment or whatever pet project there may be. There is not an unlimited amount of money, so that is where the turf wars begin.”

He said the impact of so many able-bodied Americans languishing in prison is a major kick to the shins of the U.S. economy.

“It’s becoming an economic issue,” McClure explained. “Typically, in states around the country, the prison system or penal system – however you want to define it – is one of the top two or three budget items. It continues to grow at a rampant pace.”

McClure’s vision is for the criminal justice system to stop looking at all drug offenses the same way. He said the violent drug pushers should be treated much differently than the addicts and the small-time dealers.

“Those folks deserve to be locked up with the key thrown away,” he said. “But what we’re talking about is an addict who is struggling, who needs more mental health and needs an opportunity to take a substance abuse and mental health approach as opposed to a lock ’em up approach.”

For McClure, the criminal justice reform movement is, for the moment at least, focused on drug crimes and making the distinctions that give addicts a helping hand. Some law-and-order conservatives have thus concluded the movement is little more than going easier on drug offenders.

McClure not only disputed that but said the get-tough-on-crime approach is a proven failure.

“We’ve tried ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ It doesn’t work. Prison becomes a revolving door for the really, really bad guys, and it becomes a destructive problem for those who end up in prison because they had a few extra pills,” said McClure, who argued that tying judges’ hands with mandatory minimum sentencing is another stain on the system.

McClure’s reference to inmates who had a few extra pills highlights cases like Cynthia Powell. A grandmother in her 40s, Powell is spending 25 years in prison because she felt she was being kind to her neighbor by giving him some Lorcet pills – combination of Tylenol and hydrocodone.

“She’d never been arrested, never been in trouble,” McClure said. “She never had a violent history or anything. She gave [the neighbor] her prescription Lorcet pills because he said he had a bad back. He turned out to be a DEA agent, and now she’s in jail.

“Because the judge had no discretion and there were mandatory minimums here in Florida, she now sits in jail with a mandatory minimum sentence. Those are the kinds of egregious stories that we see around the country that need to be addressed.”

McClure firmly believes scrapping mandatory minimums is not only best for the addicts but also for the taxpayers.

“If we are able to fix this issue without the kind of mandatory minimums [where we just] ‘lock ’em up,’ you also shrink the size of government,” he said. “So it’s public safety, it’s economics, and it’s shrinking the size of government.”

But while law-and-order conservatives may have their own misgivings, the libertarian argument is that the drug wars are a very costly failure. Would decriminalizing drugs lead to more sweeping changes?

McClure is not ready to go there.

“It’s smart justice reform. It’s not just for legalizing drugs,” McClure said.

“Take care and treat those who have a problem. Lock up those who are violent criminals. I don’t think the libertarian view would say to allow the violent criminals to roam the streets. Our smart criminal justice reform would do what libertarians want, however, and that is shrink the size of government.”