Drug Addicts Need Treatment Not Incarceration
In 1972 President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs." Fourteen years later, Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, which included tougher penalties for crack cocaine than powder. Crack cocaine is the only drug in which possession of it results in a mandatory five year sentence. Two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic, but 82 percent of people incarcerated for possessing it are African American.
"Two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic, but 82 percent of people incarcerated for possessing it are African American.
In 1986 African Americans had federal drug sentences that were 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, African Americans had federal drug sentences that were 49 percent higher. In 2004, the US Department of Justice statistics revealed that 45 percent of all state prisoners serving time for drug offenses were African American and 26.4 percent were white.
Drug sentencing reform needed
Last June Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) called for the U.S. national drug-control policy to be overhauled. "Despite the number of people we have arrested, the illegal drug industry and the flow of drugs to our citizens remain undiminished," Webb said.
In Webb's book A Time to Fight, he wrote that "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana ... Drug addiction is not in and of itself a criminal act. It is a medical condition, indeed a disease, just as alcoholism is, and we don't lock people up for being alcoholics."
The Drug Policy Alliance Network mentions a concept on its website called "harm reduction," which it defines as "a public health philosophy that seeks to lessen the dangers that drug abuse and our drug policies cause to society." One of the main goals of harm reduction is treatment for drug addiction rather than incarceration.
Restorative justice aims to restore offenders to society, making it a good fit for non-violent drug offenders. The Roosevelt Institution describes restorative justice philosophy as "the idea of human bonds." Restorative justice "offers a more effective method of combating drug addiction and drug related crime than incarceration."
The Roosevelt Institution recommends that sentencing circles be implemented which include the drug offender's family, friends, judges, attorneys, social workers, and community members. The sentencing circle works to create a plan for the offender that "can work for all parties and is based upon the community's shared values." The drug offender will have access to counseling and support as a result.
"States spent $44 billion on prisons in 2007.
Implementing sentencing circles would save taxpayers money. States spent $44 billion on prisons in 2007. States could reallocate the money that is already spent to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders. State and federal laws concerning drug crimes sentencing would need to be revised in order for states to implement such programs.
San Diego has what it calls collaborative justice courts. The courts "promote accountability to the community by combining judicial supervision with treatment and other rehabilitation services that are rigorously monitored and focused on recovery," according to the website CourtInnovation.org.
Obama and drug sentencing reform
In January President-elect Barack Obama will take office, along with a Democratic Congress that will have a larger majority in the Senate, and continued control of the House of Representatives. Obama's previous remarks indicate there is hope for drug sentencing reform.
"If you're convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be punished, but let's not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference is where the people are using them or who is using them," Obama said on September 30, 2007 while speaking at Howard University.
In Obama's campaign booklet, Blueprint for Change, disparities in drug sentencing laws are cited as a problem. The booklet states that Obama will "give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior."