Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Show Me the Alternatives!

Gil Kerlikowske, career law enforcement officer and current drug czar, offers a thoughtful and well-written commentary in The Huffington Post on how we should taking a public health approach to America's drug problems.

Drug use fell throughout the 1980's, to some of the lowest levels we've ever seen - but spending on overcrowded prisons spiked to unsustainable levels, the criminal justice system came to resemble a revolving door, and the relationship between police and the communities they serve was frequently strained to the breaking point. Eventually, progress stalled and use began to rise again as it became clear that our mostly one-sided response needed retooling. Many Americans were also forced to confront a difficult truth -- that the face of the drug problem was too often that of a son, an aunt, a wife, or a father.
(Too true, as our Profiles of Injustice show.  If you haven't read them, take a glance.  Look like someone you know?  You betcha they do.)  Mr. Kerlikowske seems to say that all this incarceration has caused drug use to drop, but alas, there's no solid evidence supporting that connection.  Drug use ebbs and flows based on many factors, only one of which is incarceration.

Kerlikowske rightly praises the Obama administration's achievements (including passing crack sentencing reforms last year) and effort to focus on treatment, prevention, and alternatives to long prison sentences for drug offenders:
But we also know we can make progress by employing evidence-based strategies. Despite recent increases in drug use, it is half of what it was 30 years ago, cocaine production in Colombia has dropped by almost two-thirds, and we're already successfully diverting thousands of non-violent offenders into treatment instead of jail by supporting alternatives to incarceration.
Last year, President Obama also signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 disparity between trafficking offenses for crack and powder cocaine. We're also providing communities with the capacity to prevent drug use and drug-related crime, increasing funding for drug courts and other alternatives to incarceration by millions of dollars, and using community corrections programs involving swift, certain, yet modest sanctions to monitor and support drug-involved offenders.
All of this sounds great, and all of it is needed.  Here's our beef:  these alternatives don't exist in the federal system!  There are no federal drug courts getting federal funds; no federal treatment alternatives; no meaningful alternatives to prison available to the vast majority of federal drug offenders -- just long mandatory minimums and long guideline sentences.  The federal system is the world's largest penal system, and its numbers are damning:  federal prisons are at over 40% over capacity, stocked with 210,000 prisoners -- over half of which are serving time for a drug crime!

Treatment, alternatives to prison, community supervision, drug courts -- we need more of these in the states, but we also need more of them in the federal sentencing system.  Kerlikowske and President Obama can't control what state legislatures decide about their sentencing policies, but they can influence what becomes available in the federal system.  A good start would be getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, giving more flexibility to judges sentencing federal drug cases, and providing meaningful access to drug courts and probation for federal offenders.

Kerlikowske says we have "no choice" but to change the way we address our drug problem.  He's right. Part of that change must include making federal drug sentencing policies smarter and fairer.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Please don't stop at the changes for drug offenses. I am amazed at the sentences for everything, sex offenses, firearms, the Lacey Act..some of which are almost funny if it didn't involve humans losing years of their lives. All sentences need changing and we need to re-instate parole.