Reconsidering the economics of punishing non-violent offenders

Jim Redwine Featured Local Columnist

It is not what I have not known that has caused me the most concern, it has been those things I have known for sure that turn out to be wrong.

Usually when I have had no doubt of my position on an issue, it matters little if the facts belie my stance, as only personal embarrassment is the result. However, as a judge, when I have cavalierly approached a problem, say the best way to legally process non-violent drug offenders, real harm may have resulted. At the least, real good that might have been done may not have been.

I do not assert that I now have the answer to what is the best way for a judge, at least one judge, to handle non-violent users of illegal substances. In fact, I seem to have transitioned from absolute certainty that the best way to save the miscreant and society was to slam a prison gate for a significant time to fearing I have no solution.

I am still comfortable incarcerating anyone who harms others physically, police officers for example. But when one harms only him or herself, or even engages in the sharing of substances with other consenting adults not for profit, expending significant public resources to prosecute and lock them up no longer strikes me as rational.

While I have spent years helping to prosecute and/or judge many non-violent offenders, it was a recent chance encounter with someone on the other side of the judicial bench that caused my most recent re-examination of my judicial philosophy concerning these issues. This person shared with me that he has already done several years in prison for illegal drug sales to and from acquaintances. He works full-time and helps support his children. He is still on active probation. His sentence is one I might have imposed had he come before me.

Each year of prison costs taxpayers nearly $20,000, not considering the taxes an inmate could have paid in had he been working those years. This person I was talking with is a skillful and willing workman. Of course, many drug users often have difficulty finding a job or showing up for work and holding on to a job. That is where a good probation system is key. Assuming society does not believe non-violent drug users should be imprisoned for life, all such offenders must be released sometime.

I am acutely aware that almost all low-level, non-violent drug offenders are not “first-timers.” Often parents, clergy people, police officers and friends have tried to help drug addicts for years before formal legal proceedings are filed. Then, many times an offender is given another chance to rehabilitate themselves, usually with generous allowances made for “backsliding.” But, if the offenders are harming mainly themselves, society is only wasting taxpayer resources to “punish” a repeat offender who sins again. I can attest that it is extremely frustrating to have someone who has been given repeated opportunities fall off the wagon. On the other hand, the alternative simply kicks the can down the road and takes resources away from other more pressing public problems.

Please remember I have already admitted I have no solutions. On the other hand, I think, a cost/benefit analysis is not unreasonable. At least with the non-violent drug abuser I spent time with recently, it appears to be the best answer. I do not offer this approach either as a general panacea or a prophylactic for our country’s drug pandemic. But, if we encourage some to become producers instead of consumers of public resources, the ones who are not redirected will be fewer and we will all be better off.

— James (Jim) M. Redwine was born in Pawhuska, Osage County, Oklahoma. He is a graduate of Pawhuska High School, Indiana University, I.U. School of Law, the Indiana Graduate Judges College and the National Judicial College. He lives at JPeg Osage Ranch in rural Osage County, Oklahoma with his wife, Peg. Jim and Peg have 3 grown children, 7 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.