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Is a $16.4 million jail a good idea?

The Haywood County Commissioners have decided to move forward with a long-term plan to expand the existing jail at the cost of $16.4 million dollars with an added 145 new beds.

It is incredibly frustrating that our commissioners are more than willing to greenlight millions for incarceration but flat out refuse to discuss harm reduction, homelessness or treatment programs for community members. As a matter of fact, a former commissioner who is now a state representative made it his mission to degrade anyone who inquired about these issues.

Time and time again, studies refute the idea that stiffer prison sentences deter drug use, distribution or other drug law violations. Investing in jails and incarceration brings high cost and low returns. 

One-third of drug offenders who leave federal prison and undergo some type of community supervision commit new crimes or violate their probation. Top-level actors such as traffickers and high-level suppliers account for about 11 percent of the population in prisons. The rest are low-level offenders like street dealers who are rapidly replaced as soon as they’re arrested. 

We’re in the midst of an ongoing drug epidemic. For more than a decade, we’ve seen opioids and methamphetamine sweep our county. Policy makers need to start addressing the drug issues with more progressive and sensible approaches. The War on Drugs has cost us billions — and we’re in worse shape now than we were 40 years ago. Have arrests and revolving court doors knocked a dent in Western North Carolina’s drug problem? Not at all. Everyday we’ve got people overdosing and dying — so much in fact Haywood County displays a lovely sign at a busy intersection informing us of monthly overdose rates. 

Research shows us that the most effective response to drug abuse is a combination of law enforcement reducing trafficking and staying on top of community policing so that new markets don’t pop up. Our judicial system needs alternative sentencing to divert nonviolent drug offenders from costly imprisonment. We need harm reduction and treatment to reduce dependency and recidivism.

If you want to funnel money to law enforcement then do it wisely. Train law enforcement officers in overdose prevention and community policing in neighborhoods with emerging drug activity. Instead of dismissing community organizations, our county commissioners should be working with those organizations to dismantle street markets. When users and dealers are offered other alternatives, more than half tend to relent and seek help. Drug courts and community supervision are much more effective when it comes to taxpayer money. 

An estimated 22 million Americans needed substance-use treatment in 2015, but only about 1 in 10 received it. Imagine if our county commissioners were as gung-ho to invest in harm reduction, drug treatment programs, fund mental health, build a homeless shelter and put efforts into economic development. 

Substance abuse is more common among those living in poverty. Poverty does not cause drug addiction. However, substance abuse is more of a byproduct of the lifestyle led by people of limited financial means. A neglectful single mother who is out of work may drown her sorrows in a bottle or pop a few pain pills everyday. This may pass onto a child who views this as normal and also begins coping with life’s problems the same way. 

As long as Haywood County’s economic development plans include low-paying retail and hospitality jobs, we’ll continue to see a rise in substance abuse. I’d rather that $16 million be used to lure some kind of industry here that’ll create living wage jobs. Makes more sense than building a bigger jail. 

Mental health is one of the biggest risk factors documented for substance abuse. Approximately 29 percent of all people diagnosed with a mental health disorder also abuse drugs or alcohol. Considering mental illness affects 43.7 million Americans, that’s a lot of people dealing with co-occurring issues. Yet Haywood County has a limited amount of mental health treatment available — even for those who have health insurance. 

The concepts of “enabling,” “rock bottom,” and other punitive approaches toward addiction are mainstays of the 12 step programs that continue to dominate recovery culture despite having zero scientific evidence to back it up. Incarceration is highly traumatic and embedded with both short- and long-term negative consequences. In the long term, convictions, especially felonies, can follow people for years after their release from jail or prison. People with felony drug convictions face difficulties renting homes, gaining employment, and even accessing public benefits.

I understand governments are making incredibly difficult decisions about the allocation of resources every day, but it is imperative that we use the evidence available to safeguard harm reduction funding. Harm reduction interventions are both cost-effective and cost-saving in the longer term, unlike incarceration. 

If only we lived in a world where fervor and zeal were directed at programs actually serving people rather than those that further destroy lives. We can’t arrest our way out of a drug crisis. Ironically, law enforcement and the judicial system can compel addicts to attend treatment but medical professionals can’t. Addiction is a public health issue! Please start addressing it as such. If there is a growing crime problem in our community, then we need to take steps to identify the underlying causes. This “band aid” solution in covering up the issues and hoping they fix themselves is not working. Please use our tax dollars responsibly! According to Einstein, insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. 

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