In 2010, Jose Antonio Medina Arreguin, also known as Don Pepe, was arrested on charges of smuggling approximately 440 pounds of heroin a month into California with his main destination being Ventura County. In interviewing Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Erik Nasarenko during his campaign for Ventura City Council in fall 2013, we asked if the arrest of Don Pepe had any effect on the local heroin trade. Though he prosecutes primarily domestic violence and abuse cases, he said that, no, the arrest of Don Pepe didn’t change the drug trade in Ventura County.
The question that came up, and so far remains unanswered, is, why do we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results? With California prison recidivism rates hovering between 60 and 70 percent for the last 30 years, we are clearly doing something wrong. If the goal is to get drugs off the street and the arrest and prosecution of drug dealers and even those high on drugs aren’t changing the number of people who use drugs, the demand for them or the amount available, then it’s time to make some changes in the way we wage this war.
In our feature this week, “Inside out: The truth about prison realignment,” Supervising Deputy Probation Officer Chris Modica talked about the vicious cycle of drug charges, incarceration, release and back again. He also said that all of his clients, those on probation and those he worked with on parole, all had used drugs or had drug offenses on their records. He also said that there were various laws on the books in California that allow for alternatives to incarceration for drug charges. Yet, even with such laws, in speaking with several inmates at the Ventura County jail in the last two months, all of them were incarcerated on drug charges. Something seems amiss.
The efforts to change the criminal mind, to restructure the way inmates think about why they do things, is notable, to say the least, as a part of the new standards in prison realignment. But we need to take it a few steps further. First, we need to look to our lawmakers in Sacramento. In the 2010 report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “California Prisoners and Parolees, summary statistics on adult felon prisoners and parolees, civil narcotic addicts and outpatients and other populations” revealed that 15.2 percent of the prison population, or 24,546 inmates, were incarcerated on drug charges: possession, possession for sale, sales, manufacturing, various marijuana charges, etc. So if in 2014, both the prison system and county jails have a significant number of inmates serving time on drug charges and if changing the laws would not only decrease the population of inmates but also disrupt a vicious cycle, shouldn’t it be a top priority?
In the face of prison realignment and overcrowding in prisons and jails, we need to seriously look at the laws and the root of recidivism, especially when it comes to enforcing drug laws. We understand that nothing good comes of the use of addictive drugs such as heroin and crystal meth, but to keep doing the same thing over and over while nothing changes on the street and only gets worse in lockup and for the future lives of inmates, is just insane. Perhaps, besides looking at the laws, we should focus on putting evidence-based critical thinking programs that reduce recidivism rates into our schools. If we attack drug use head on, if we look to prevent it and to prevent people from committing crimes in the first place, wouldn’t such programs be ideal in our education system? We need to do something different because what we have now just isn’t cutting it.