• A welcome diversion
    January 09,2013

    The appointment of Robert Sand to help set up special courts to handle drunken driving cases is a step by Gov. Peter Shumlin toward fulfilling his promise to reform the state’s corrections and judicial system.

    As the longtime state’s attorney for Windsor County, Sand has established a reputation as an independent and creative thinker on questions of crime and punishment. He has argued for the decriminalization of small-time drug possession charges, partly to keep young offenders from becoming snared in the corrections system, which often damages people rather than helping them toward a productive life.

    His progressive ideas on drug issues rankled Gov. James Douglas, who took exception to Sand’s recommendation of court diversion in a marijuana possession case with a Windsor County lawyer as defendant. But the times are changing.

    Shumlin favors reduced criminal liability for marijuana possession, as he favors other measures to steer defendants away from the prison system and toward programs that will put the correction in corrections.

    The new DUI courts that Sand is charged with setting up are in line with the successful creation of drug courts in several Vermont jurisdictions. The idea is to use the criminal case as a lever to push defendants toward programs that will help them address the addictions or abuse that are the root cause of their criminal actions.

    The nation has been in the grip of a punitive philosophy toward drug and alcohol offenses, going back for decades. Nationally, one consequence has been the vast expansion of the prison system which holds more inmates than any other nation. Historians have noted that the toll of this punitive approach has hit especially hard at black communities where a crippling percentage of young men are caught up in the prison system. A young black man on a city street is much more likely to be stopped, frisked and jailed for a small stash of marijuana than a young white man on a college campus with a similar stash. Some critics have noted that the nation’s war on the black community has amounted almost to a re-enslavement of young black men.

    The toll of drugs is real, and even marijuana can be abused. But the war on drugs has not succeeded in rescuing America’s cities or eliminating the small but consistent number of people who are addicted to dangerous drugs. Rather, it has depleted communities of potentially productive young men. It is a policy based on fear yielding an end result of social deterioration.

    Vermont has played a small part in the war on drugs, mainly because of the presence of heroin and other hard drugs and the dealers who provide them. Heroin is a real menace, and the trade in hard drugs damages communities.

    But Vermont is also a state where young people report a relatively high usage of marijuana. Even before the advent of the drug courts police and courts as a rule were not imposing draconian punishments for personal marijuana possession.

    DUI, unfortunately, is always with us, and an effort to address the problem of repeat offenders is long overdue. If Sand can establish the means for helping repeat offenders get control of their alcohol abuse, he will have helped the offenders, made the state safer and eased the pressure on the corrections system. Let it be a warm-up for a larger effort to bring the full effect of diversion, drug courts and restorative justice to courts statewide.

    Shumlin has reported that the population of young inmates has already started to drop — by more than half between 2003 and June 2012. That is a huge improvement. The important improvement will be if people brought before the courts are steered toward programs that will keep them out of the courts forever. That will save money and lives and will restore communities.

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