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Commentary -Case Of Rowland's Nephew Shows How State Bungles Drugs



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Commentary –

Case Of Rowland’s Nephew Shows How State Bungles Drugs

By Chris Powell

Some may enjoy the embarrassment to his family, and others may be glad of the lack of political favoritism in Vernon Superior Court, where exceedingly harsh punishment is often imposed in drug cases. But still it is hard to see how Connecticut will be any safer now that Governor Rowland’s 19-year-old nephew, Peter Rowland, is going to jail for 90 days for selling marijuana out of his dormitory room at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Indeed, what is being done with young Rowland may be almost crazy, insofar as Connecticut’s prisons are so crowded that the Correction Department has had to ship 500 of the worst prisoners out of state, and Connecticut’s release of sex offenders is accompanied by the posting of their names, addresses, and photographs on the Internet to warn their new neighbors that they are still dangerous even as the government is washing its hands of them.

Like most such crimes, young Rowland’s had no victim in the sense for which he was prosecuted. His only victim was the university itself, which was made landlord to his drug business and should maintain an environment conducive to scholarship and responsibility. But ironically, people who commit drug offenses at UConn are treated there as leniently as they are treated severely in Vernon Superior Court. This is despite UConn’s growing problem with student wildness, which, hours after young Rowland’s acceptance of a plea bargain, was compounded by mayhem on campus amid a public practice of the men’s basketball team. Eleven students and 12 others were arrested on charges ranging from drugs and alcohol to assault and rioting.

While young Rowland is going to jail for what he did on campus, the university itself did not exercise its independent disciplinary authority against him. There is a problem in this, and it is not excused by his having withdrawn from school after his arrest, nor by UConn’s promising that he will face a disciplinary hearing if he seeks to return.

No, the problem is that UConn doesn’t automatically expel or suspend any student for any offense – even after taking a year to revise its disciplinary code so that it might apply to the rioting that students have done near campus during “Spring Weekend” in recent years.

The university’s disciplinary code merely specifies certain offenses without requiring any particular penalty for them. Offenses are judged and penalties imposed with complete discretion, either by administrators or boards of students and faculty. The university says it brings disciplinary action involving drugs against an average of 21 students per year, but only seven UConn students have been expelled and 18 suspended for all offenses in the last six years for which data is available. In that time more than 300 have been given only probation and another 130 have been assigned to alcohol and drug abuse counseling. Clearly it is hard to get expelled or suspended from UConn over drugs, and students probably know it.

So the case of young Rowland is important not for his connection to the governor but for showing how Connecticut discourages drugs in exactly the wrong way.

As stupid as drug use may be, it violates individual liberty to tell someone how he must live his life in his own space when he isn’t bothering anyone else. Having attempted to deny individual liberty this way with its 40-year failure of a “war on drugs,” the country should see how impractical this approach is. Drug use has not diminished even as the prison population has grown.

But individual conduct is fairly regulated outside the individual’s own space – for example, in government and private institutions, including schools.

How much more effective it might be if government sought to deter drug abuse not with those expensive criminal penalties, which have failed and caused so much suffering and the violence of the drug trade, but with simple exclusion from favors and privileges bestowed by the government and important institutions – exclusion from things like admission to college. This way the point about drugs could be made and society’s standards upheld without resorting to the police state and cruelty that are never far away amid the “war on drugs.”

The criminal law could still forbid drugs in certain places – like in public buildings and on public property – but the penalty would be essentially to force drug users to take their conduct elsewhere and to keep it private, not necessarily to put them in jail.

Nobody needs protection against young Rowland, but putting him in jail will take up room that is needed for people against whom protection is needed. So it would make more sense for his penalty not to be 90 days behind bars but a substantial period of expulsion from UConn and any other colleges receiving government financial support. (The federal government has started to deny college loans and grants to students with drug convictions.) Young Rowland and other student drug dealers probably would feel such a penalty just as keenly, but it wouldn’t cost society a cent, wouldn’t prevent them from supporting themselves, and wouldn’t cause the early release of real criminals.

Instead, his lawyer says young Rowland is already planning to return to UConn when he gets out of jail in January. And the university’s lenient disciplinary practices suggest that, if he is treated equally and not with special severity because of his relation to the governor, his drug dealing on campus will be forgiven immediately and he’ll be right back there, with only one semester lost (and that because of a criminal court, not the university), making him a symbol to other students that drugs really aren’t so bad after all.

(Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.)

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