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No Walk in the Ball Park for Dwight Gooden

Watching the Mets / Red Sox series this week I noticed they replayed clips of Dwight Gooden in his golden years as an star pitcher. I could not help think about how is life has now turned towards tragedy when he was sentenced to jail this April. I was very sad. Not because of what he did, but instead, of what the system of justice has done to him. Gooden has a medical problem, a very bad addiction to an illegal drug. His struggles with drugs and alcohol have been well-documented. But the obvious misfortune is that instead of being treated as someone with a medical condition, he is being treated like a criminal. This is where the problem lies.

Gooden is serving a 366-day sentence for violating his probation by using cocaine. This is the bottom line.

Americans across the country in some way partake in the ritual of escaping reality daily by getting high. Whether or not it be of legal or illegal means, this is a reality we must face. Addiction is a serious problem. But to treat it strictly punitively is not the answer to alleviate its root causes.

What moved me in an unbelievable way was the fact that Dwight Gooden chose to give up his life as a free man. Faced with a system of justice that has little remorse for drug users, Gooden’s back was against the wall when he made his decision to op for the 366-day sentence. Either that or face probation with the stipulation that any type of violation could lead to a five year sentence.

Just 10 days in a cell at a reception center in Lake Butler, Florida, he professed in an interview he rather be shot then jailed again. The prison experience had gotten to him. Non-fans of Gooden might say that the institutionalization of addicts like Dwight is a sure cure to the drug problem. We might want to get a second opinion though. Maybe we can ask a few prime suspects of drug addiction like Rush Limbaugh or maybe Patrick Kennedy who both recently had their own eye opening experiences with addiction.

The question we should now be asking is when will we as a society appropriately respond to individuals with addictions? Instead of giving draconian sentences for snorting powder or popping pills we should be thinking for alternative solutions to those with drug problems.

Now Dwight is sitting in his cell reliving his crime, thinking about the family and life he has left behind. I know the regrets that Gooden is going through in making his decision to voluntarily put himself in hell.

In 1985, I too had an addiction. In order to support my cocaine habit I agreed to deliver an envelope of 4 ounces of cocaine for $500. I was caught and was offered a plea deal that would carry a sentence of three years. Unlike Gooden, I was afraid of going to jail and leaving behind my wife and young daughter. Instead, I made the choice of going to trial and was slapped with a 15-years-to-life sentence under New York’s ultra-harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws.

I remember watching Dwight pitching from my jail cell in Sing Sing prison. Every pitch he made was on the money, leading the Mets to a world championship in 1986. He was a hero to the majority of blacks and Latinos that were sitting around the television, cheering him on. Most of them were sitting in prison, serving draconian sentences under the drug laws. None of them possessed the fast ball this super star had, but the majority shared the same life defeating addiction.

The war on drugs has fueled the debate on addiction. But along with it, comes the label of demonization that allows drug users to join the ranks of criminals that fill our prisons. Gooden like myself and others with substance abuse problems, are human beings. We do make mistakes. But, when society attempts to lock their way out the problem of addiction, everyone loses.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: anthonypapa123@yahoo.com