Calling it an issue America can’t afford to ignore, President Barack Obama laid out an expansive vision for fixing the criminal justice system. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime,” Obama told a crowd of 3,300 in Philadelphia. Low-level drug dealers, for example, owe a debt to society, but not a life sentence or 20-year prison term, he said. The United States needed to reevaluate an “aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth.” Working in Obama’s favor: tentative but optimistic signs of common ground between Republicans and Democrats. (See also: President Obama for the prisoners)
Drug courts celebrated their 25th anniversary last year. Hailed as the most compassionate way for the criminal justice system to deal with addicts, drug courts were designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Many drug court judges oppose opioid maintenance and require patients to become completely abstinent as a condition of participation or graduation. They believe that maintenance simply amounts to swapping one drug addiction for another. This critique betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of opioid pharmacology and addictive behavior.
In recent years, federal sentencing guidelines have been revised, resulting in less severe prison terms for low-level drug offenders. But tens of thousands of inmates who were convicted in the "war on drugs" of the 1980s and 1990s are still behind bars. Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.