The importance of a giving a second chance to drug offenders September 23, 2013 — by Nelson Wang Michael Zhang, who was slated to graduate with Saratoga High’s class of 2013, was a happy-go-lucky, optimistic guy while on campus — a member of the speech and debate team, a tennis player, an avid computer gamer and a National Merit semifinalist. But one day last year during the first semester, he disappeared from Saratoga High. Michael Zhang, who was slated to graduate with Saratoga High’s class of 2013, was a happy-go-lucky, optimistic guy while on campus — a member of the speech and debate team, a tennis player, an avid computer gamer and a National Merit semifinalist. But one day last year during the first semester, he disappeared from Saratoga High. Friends wondered where he had gone. It turned out that Zhang had been using drugs and had been sent to Oakley School, a therapeutic boarding school in Utah to correct his problems. There, Zhang received intensive counseling and support. He was under constant supervision, and he received some form of therapy every weekday, not only focusing on substance abuse but also on emotional struggles. Few distractions were allowed, and Zhang at first hated the strict rules. But slowly, Zhang earned more privileges and eventually graduated from the school. He now attends the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. However, Zhang is one of the fortunate. Not everyone is wealthy enough to pay for a boarding school and get a second chance to put their life together. California legislators are considering a bill to lower the punishments for minor drug offenses, such as possession of small amounts of drugs; rather than being charged with a felony, these offenders would be charged with misdemeanors. This is an idea for both political parties to get behind. Currently, minor drug offenders can be charged with five to 10 years in jail, the same punishment that a major drug kingpin or a violent drug offender may be charged with. Lower penalties would be highly beneficial because small-time drug offenders like Zhang need a second chance, especially when they are in their teens or 20s and have so much of life ahead of them. Rather than wasting money on imprisoning them, money should be invested in rehabilitation. Most minor drug offenders aren’t violent gang members and present less risk to society than to themselves. Some people believe that lowered penalties will encourage drug use, but the benefits easily outweigh the costs. For starters, it will lower the economic burden of prisons, since a huge number of the inmates, easily numbering in the thousands, are minor drug offenders. A court order compels California to lower its number of inmates by 10,000 this year and by reducing the penalties for minor drug offenders, the number of inmates will drastically drop. More importantly, the lowered penalty would give minor drug offenders another chance. Currently, these offenders are incarcerated without any help and upon their release, have few opportunities for jobs or education, since they were charged with a felony. Zhang admits that he probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college without the second chance offered by the boarding school. “I personally probably wouldn't have graduated if I hadn’t gotten sent away [to the boarding school],” Zhang said. “And if I did graduate, it'd be by being held back a year and finishing my senior year at West Valley.” With lowered penalties for minors, money spent on imprisoning the offenders can instead be spent on rehabilitation, which may be more effective at lowering crime rates than imprisonment. “Using substances messes with you and you lose a lot of your motivation to do things,” Zhang said. “You start to focus a lot on instant gratification and you become really irritable.” Zhang believes strongly in the need for giving minor drug offenders a second chance. His case clearly points out the problem with the current justice system since many of the drug offenders may come from low-income families who cannot afford such expensive therapy. This creates a cycle of poverty — perpetuating drug use among the poor and limiting rehabilitation to those who need it most. “In recovery, there's a concept of something called co-morbidity, which basically explains that you usually have a secondary reason for using drugs other than just getting high, like depression or anxiety or a tendency to avoid things,” Zhang said. “Giving [these kids] a second chance is giving them a chance to work out those issues so that they can get their life together.” Zhang is a case study of how rehabilitation is essential, especially for those who are only minor drug offenders and can still contribute to society.