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.
As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances. Obama's most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization. Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) plans to stay on the sidelines of future pot legalization campaigns – already supported by groups plotting ballot campaigns in 2016 – and pour resources into fights for criminal justice reform. One model to replicate is California's Proposition 47, approved by 58 percent to lower penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes. "We would love to be able to have ballot initiatives in a number of states that may look very similar to Proposition 47," says ACLU's Alison Holcomb . "Hopefully we will be able to find states where we can go further and say, ‘Let’s decriminalize the possession of drugs and let’s talk about what we can do to address drug use and abuse.’"
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.
Many longtime supporters of drug courts have become dismayed by the extent to which the courts now reach into the lives of people whose only infraction was to light up a joint. More Americans are arrested for pot possession than any other drug offense, with more than 650,000 such arrests in 2012. Some pot users who might have simply faced a fine in the regular court system are instead getting moved into the drug-court system for months on end. They are often required to pay for expensive treatment programs and risk jail time if they break program rules along the way. (See also: Moving Away from Drug Courts)
The mandatory-sentencing craze that drove up the prison population tenfold, pushing state corrections costs to bankrupting levels, was rooted in New York’s infamous Rockefeller drug laws. These laws, which mandated lengthy sentences for nonviolent, first-time offenders, were approved 40 years ago next month. They did little to curtail drug use in New York or in other states that mimicked them, while they filled prisons to bursting with nonviolent addicts.
Police officers in New York are "manufacturing" criminal offenses by forcing people with small amounts of marijuana to reveal their drugs, according to a survey by public defenders. Nearly half of New Yorkers picked up for small amounts of marijuana possession in recent months were not displaying the drug before they were stopped, the study shows, despite an order by New York police chief Ray Kelly that officers should not charge people in such circumstances.
The Supreme Court agreed to resolve a question that has vexed the lower federal courts since Congress enacted a law to narrow the gap between sentences meted out for offenses involving two kinds of cocaine. Selling cocaine in crack form used to subject offenders to the same sentence one would get for selling 100 times as much in powder. The new law, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, reduced the disparity to 18 to 1, at least for people who committed their offenses after the law became effective on Aug. 3, 2010.
Eric E. Sterling, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
01 November 2011
If Congress were functioning properly, it would take the time to consider the many potential improvements in drug policy that could save lives by preventing overdose, reducing the spread of HIV, and lessening violence, preventing crime, and saving money. With a commitment to governing, instead of grandstanding, Congress could make a careful analysis and weigh the alternatives.
A federal judge has declared Florida's drug law unconstitutional, potentially throwing thousands of criminal cases into jeopardy. U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven of Orlando issued a ruling Wednesday that struck down the state's Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law, saying it violates due process because it doesn't require that prosecutors prove that a person knew he or she possessed illegal drugs. See also: Attorneys seek dismissal of hundreds of local drug cases
Jason Pepper, a former meth addict and drug dealer from the heartland, says he got lucky when he was finally arrested. A sympathetic judge gave him a fraction of the prison time he could have received and, more importantly, sent him to a place where he got extensive drug treatment. Then his luck ran out, when appeals courts said his sentence was too lenient. Even though all acknowledged that he had turned his life around, he was sent back to prison.