There isn’t much that liberals, conservatives, and medical experts can agree on, but there’s one issue on which we all can come to a consensus: that society can’t incarcerate its way out of drug addiction and related crime and that we need a newer, smarter approach to old problems. Today, Sioux Falls is poised to elect a mayor who may shape our criminal justice system for decades to come. This choice presents a question: will overstated claims of a surge in crime scare us into supporting outdated “war on drugs” policies or will we face drug addiction and crime with a sensible approach that improves life for people in our communities and spends tax dollars wisely?
It’s no secret that communities across South Dakota are struggling to combat meth addiction, and Sioux Falls is no exception. While drug abuse is a serious problem that requires serious solutions, the tough-on-crime rhetoric throughout the mayoral campaign has been cause for concern. Despite an Argus Leader investigation that revealed much of the soaring-crime narrative is “overblown,” tough-talk persists. Candidate claims that they can “route out” drug dealers and promises to “aggressively combat crime and drug activity” may sound like the solution. Yet those tactics are straight out of the failed “war on drugs” playbook that has devastated communities, ripped apart families, and packed jails and prisons to the breaking point since their inception in the 1970s.
Instead of doubling down on outdated and overly punitive policies, the next Sioux Falls Mayor can remake our policies so that they're smart. It’s time for our leaders to embrace society’s current understandings of addiction and substance abuse. Studies have shown that prison does not deter crime. In a lot of cases, it creates many more problems than it solves. Locking up huge swathes of our population makes communities less safe by because huge numbers of people are torn away from their families and from the ability to hold down a job, because we're warehousing people in overcrowded jails and prisons, and because having a record can cut away at someone's ability to vote or seek employment after they get out. We must do better.
Without a holistic approach that sees drug users as members of our community who deserve help and compassion, our government will continue treating addicts as enemies beyond redemption. We know that individuals who receive treatment and a second chance are less likely to commit crimes in the future and more likely to return to being productive community members. The next mayor must make this smart approach the linchpin in any initiatives to combat drug abuse and crime in our city.
For far too long we have relied on policies that are only tough on crime. In this election, we urge voters and candidates alike to embrace policies that are smart on crime.
On May 1, Sioux Falls is facing a choice not just of candidates but of policies: we can invest in initiatives that help people and pay dividends – in lower recidivism rates and cost savings down the road – or we can lock more people up and throw away their potential and our tax dollars.
Article originally published on the Argus Leader.