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Monday, May 12, 2014

The law is a blunt weapon to be used carefully

The Guardian newspaper in the UK is reporting on a proposed law in the state of Victoria, Australia that would create a criminal offence for anyone knowing of child abuse to not report it. Earlier this month, The Huffington Post told of the law passed in Tennessee that would allow the incarceration of women abusing drugs while pregnant.

Both of these legislated actions are well meaning. One is designed to ensure that children can be protected from the impact of drug abuse prior to birth. The other is designed to increase the rate at which abuse is reported and can thus be addressed. Yet both fail due to the unintended consequences. They are the actions of politicians who grasp on to a problem and then seek the simple answer. They are able to justify the action based upon the desirable goal - reduce harm to children.

What is so often missed though, are the unintended consequences. Let's look at the notion of incarcerating a pregnant women. As a student in one of my classes pointed out when we were discussing this, what stress arises for the mother being in jail? How will that impact the baby? How will withdrawal be managed in jail? I also wonder about the capacity of many jails to be drug free.

The Australian example raises a number of questions for non professionals. Does this mean that the neighbour who suspects that abuse is going on would be charged because they did not report suspicions? What of an adult child who has been the victim of abuse, knows that the abuser is still doing it, but still believes the threats to kill that the abuser has held over the victims head for years? What of the spouse who lives in terror of what will happen to her and the children if the abuser is found out - as the abuser has warned her that he will kill her and the kids? Or the mother who has been told by the violent partner that if anyone finds out she will never see her kids again? Are these people to be criminalized?

Putting someone through the criminal justice system, putting someone in jail, costs a lot of money. Why not spend that money on health care, rehabilitation and safety services? In other words, why not do something that will really help?

If you incarcerate pregnant women using drugs, then you drive them away from services that can address the addiction or substance abuse. If you criminalize a victim of abuse who was too afraid to tell, then you drive the victims further underground.

Let us not also forget that when you put people in jail, you fracture families. This too is an unintended consequence of these actions creating more victims - the children left behind. The policy makers should  be asking with each proposal - is this the best solution available? 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The war on drugs is a war on children

There have been two publications in the past week or so that have struck me as profound evidence that the war on drugs is an utter failure. Let me say up front, I see addiction as a health issue.

The first report is from The National Academies and is a report titled, The growth of incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and consequences.  It points out that the USA incarcerates more people than any other country in the world and that drug issues are the prime reason.  The report concludes:

The change in penal policy over the past four decades nay have had a wide range of unwanted social costs, and the magnitude of crime reduction benefits is highly uncertain (p.7)

The report also brings into question mandatory minimum sentences and long sentences. They note that incarceration is used when there are less intrusive and more beneficial options.  If imprisonment is not reducing crime, then why use it as the prime response pattern. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

The second report comes from the London School of Economics titled Ending the drug wars. It concludes:

The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage. These include mass incarceration in the US, highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilisation in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world. 

These reports tells us that, despite over 40 years of prohibition and interaction as the prime social policy approach for which literally billions of dollars have been spent, we have not been successful in even reducing the problem. The LSE report notes that prices have been falling while purity has been increasing.

What neither of these reports talk about directly is the impact that the prohibition approach has on children:

  1. When a parent is incarcerated, the child essentially loses the parent. When incarceration is for long periods, then the child must go through a grieving process that leaves the child with an emotional hole. As the Adverse Childhood Experiences research shows, incarceration of a parent has long term impacts;
  2. The child is more likely to exposed to violence when a parent has an active addiction as the parent must go through illegal channels;
  3. The family system lives in fear when the addiction is present but health resources are seriously underfunded;
  4. Incarcerating a parent is more likely to impact the child's economic survival;
  5. More chance of being brought into care
We also know that untreated addiction has long lasting impacts on a child. Thus, if we shift our focus to one where health resources are enhanced, then the impact on children will be more intact families and more present parents. As well, rehabilitation is likely to be much less expensive.