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A prisoner of tough politics

Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John Wayne Siple died April 5 in the Columbia County jail, a political prisoner.

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OK, not really. Pretty much the prevailing theory is that he died as a result of years from abusing his body with all manner of substances, followed by the harsh, cold-turkey withdrawal of sitting in a jail cell.

The details of Siple's death are still under investigation, and his family is patiently awaiting answers. In the meantime, we know that while he wasn't exactly a political prisoner, he was undoubtedly a prisoner of politics.

How? Newt Gingrich and Nathan Deal say so.

Just in the past few weeks, the likely Republican presidential candidate and the Republican Georgia governor have questioned the cost, both monetary and socially, of locking so many people up for minor drug crimes. A state commission has been proposed to study the issue.

How much does it cost us? A recent report says Georgia taxpayers spend nearly $1 billion per year - about $18,000 per inmate - to feed, house and care for the fourth-largest prison population in the nation.

Of those inmates, Deal says, up to 75 percent are held because of problems stemming from alcohol and/or drug addiction - and the system doesn't do much to fight those addictions except, like Siple, putting addicts in a cell until their sentence is up, or they die.

In Siple's case, he was in jail because a three-month investigation found he was growing marijuana in the basement of his rented home on Hereford Farm Road in Evans.

The cops were turned on to him (pun intended) because of the extra traffic his driveway seemed to attract. And, more than likely, some snitch hoped to score a few points with prosecutors by dropping Siple's name.

But ponder this possibility: What if Siple had kept quiet, growing his little indoor garden, sharing his illicit crop with no one but himself? Would society, in that case, really have a significant interest in depriving him of liberty? Would we, as taxpayers, have a burning need to pay his rent, buy his food and secure his medical care?

That's the sort of person Gingrich and Deal are talking about, and at long last - through common sense, common decency and economic reality - are coming at the issue of criminal reform from a conservative direction.

That direction is significant. Everybody already expects liberals to talk about such things, being seen as stereotypically soft on crime and all that. But more conservatives, and libertarians, are starting to see that the state's hardcore, get-tough-on-crime approach has left taxpayers holding the bag for care, housing and feeding of a tremendous number of people who have harmed only themselves.

Such people, especially those busted enough times to run afoul of Georgia's "three strikes" law, cost exactly as much to warehouse in a prison as murderers, child molesters, wife-beaters and armed robbers.

In addition, the state's budgetary squeeze makes it more obvious that the $18,000 spent to warehouse a pothead would pay the annual elementary school cost for three kids, or provide tuition for a college student, or pay half the salary for a cop to help protect us from truly dangerous people.

Theoretically, John Wayne Siple shouldn't have been in jail at all. He could have then continued to feed his vices until he quit or until they killed him in the comfort of his own home, at little cost to taxpayers.

But because Siple was a prisoner of politics, jailed for indulging in self-destructive behavior that we've decided to label a serious crime and politicians are afraid of un-labeling for fear of being portrayed as "soft," he died in the discomfort of a jail shower, paid for by your tax dollars.

Hopefully his soul is at rest. Ours should be troubled until we find a wiser path.

(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimesonline.com. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)

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