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Stop jailing addicts


September 11, 2013 Letters to the Editor

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Gary Neely’s recent letter (“Criminals prey on us,” Sept. 4) shocked me. I agree with most of what he wrote. What he and I agree upon are the symptoms. What we disagree on is the cure.

With a good bit of nostalgia, the writer looks back at an idyllic childhood and his reminisces paint a Mayberry-like portrait of Butler where it was safe to walk down city streets, cops were large and in charge, and all the children were above average. I couldn’t readily find data for those utopian days but what I found was that crime in Butler is actually lower today than it was in the mid ’80s (and the FBI claims the crime rate is at or near historical lows today). But just because yesterday is never as good as it used to be doesn’t mean that he isn’t on to something.

There is little doubt in my mind drug use may cause some people to engage in criminal activity. The Bureau of Justice Statistic places that number at a bit under 20 percent.

Another thing the writer is on to is the breakdown of community. One of the givens of modern American cities (large, small and tiny) is the anonymity. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t even know who lives next door.

He points to the malls outside of town and the shuttered businesses in town. In our rush for “always lower prices,” we killed our downtowns and ruined the livelihood of our good neighbors, the folks who owned those small businesses.

The writer would cure the crime problem by filling the prisons with drug dealers and users — more cops on the beat, judges willing to mete out punishment and, if that doesn’t work he suggests citizens should “deal directly with this situation (I think I can imagine exactly what he means).”

This is where he and I part company. Our jails are filled with addicts. Our cops have cracked down, our judges (as directed by our legislators) have imposed heavy mandatory sentences, and we still have drug abusers. I don’t think it’s time for “more of the same.”

Some of the causes of drug abuse are contained in the writer’s list of symptoms. People with addictions aren’t “cretins,” as he describes them — they are ill. Some people sell drugs because our economy is broken; there are no jobs out there or the jobs that are don’t provide a living wage. Many people self medicate because their lives are intolerably painful. Community, church, neighborhood and family are hollow cores of what they should be. Addicts are separated from family, neighbors, the very community that, in those good old days, used to look out for each other. “We need drugs,” says author Wendell Berry, “because we have lost each other.”

To echo Neely, “ Our town will never recover its healthy, family-friendly atmosphere until this situation is resolved.” We will never be the town Neely misses until we rebuild our community.

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