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"War on Drugs" Blamed for Montana Jailhouse Blues

March 2, 2007

Montana's prison population is expected to grow the fastest in the nation over the next five years, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trust. Three new prisoners are expected for every one currently in the system, according to the report.

Jim Doherty, a longtime state prosecutor, says the crisis can be blamed on increased, but wrongly focused, enforcement against illegal drugs. He says, while what the nation calls "the war on drugs" has put a record number of people behind bars, it has failed to cut the availability and profitability of illegal drugs.

"Our children in high school, and now grade school and middle school, still have access to drugs. There's too much financial compensation for those that profit."

Doherty says drug enforcement has focused too much on adults who possess a small quantity, while most of the big-time dealers and traffickers escape detection and prosecution. Doherty believes the cost to taxpayers would be less to help those who use drugs get treatment, stay employed, stay out of prison, and stop doing business with traffickers, rather than spending $30,000 per year per inmate.

"What we need to do is shift to using public funds to help people who have what is, in essence, a medical problem."

The study forecasting prisoner population growth is available online at www.pewtrusts.com/pdf/PSPP_prison_projections_0207.pdf. Doherty is speaking at the ACLU annual meeting, Saturday, March 3rd, Red Lion Colonial Inn, Helena. Medial welcome.

Deborah Smith/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - MT