Off-limits

Former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell’s recent remark that we should consider decriminalizing drugs garnered headlines in newspapers across the state. That’s not surprising, considering Mitchell’s reputation as a tough law-and-order judge.

But there’s something troubling about the reaction to Mitchell’s suggestion that goes beyond the issue he raised. Mitchell made the remarks at a luncheon about the prison crisis and sentencing reform sponsored by NC Policy Watch and the North Carolina chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national group fighting the insanity of habitual-felon laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

Mitchell’s comments overshadowed compelling presentations by Mark Mauer, director of The Sentencing Project (a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit) and former N.C. House Speaker Dan Blue. Mauer provided startling statistics about the criminal-justice system. One is that a black male born in 1991 has roughly a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. A white male born the same year faces a one-in-25 chance.

Blue described the efforts to restore sanity to criminal sentencing in North Carolina with the passage, in the early 1990s, of “structured sentencing.” The program worked well until it was modified in recent years — which helped create the current overcrowding in state prisons and prompted calls for building still more of them.

Yet it was Mitchell’s call for legalization that became the flash point of the moment — not only because it was a surprise but because of the way the policy debate in general is conducted these days. Certain topics, it seems, are strictly off-limits, regardless of their merits, because they’re too politically risky.

Whatever you think of Mitchell’s suggestion, there is clearly evidence that it’s an option that deserves a place in the debate. One-fourth of the nation’s inmates are behind bars for drug offenses — and that’s not counting the people incarcerated for committing other crimes related to drug addiction. A full 75 percent of criminal-court filings in North Carolina involve substance abuse in some form or other. The overwhelming majority of inmates in the state prison system suffer from substance-abuse problems.

Mitchell is far from the only voice advocating decriminalization of drugs; many other law-enforcement officials and judges agree. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, but it does mean the proposal deserves some honest debate. Yet that never happens, because the unofficial rules of the policy debate don’t allow it.

Politicians are afraid they’ll be portrayed as soft on crime or encouraging drug use, even though many law-enforcement officials support the plan. But discussing decriminalization forces us to consider the overall role of substance abuse in crime — which could lead to more support for drug-treatment programs as an alternative to prison.

And it’s not just the drug war that’s off-limits. Virtually every health-care professional will tell you that the health-care system in the United States is broken, the cost of care is rising dramatically, and the percentage of people without insurance is increasing every year. But mention the need for universal coverage and you’re branded as “out of the political mainstream” or even “a socialist.”

HIV/AIDS is spreading through rural communities, primarily via dirty needles shared by IV drug users who then infect their partners. State lawmakers, however, have yet to consider the merits of a needle-exchange program to reduce the infection rate. Public-health professionals, drug-abuse counselors and many law-enforcement officials support such programs. But politicians are afraid, so the debate never happens.

The people are not as narrow-minded as our political debate has become. They just want problems solved. And the first step is for our leaders to find the courage to consider all the possible solutions.

[Veteran news reporter Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of NC Policy Watch (a Raleigh-based nonprofit), presents his take on key issues facing North Carolina in “The Fitzsimon File,” a daily column offered to media outlets free of charge.]

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