If the "war on drugs" is really a war, it is the least successful in American history. Since President Richard Nixon introduced the concept in 1971, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion and made tens of millions of arrests.
What it's gotten us is a huge prison population (1.57 million adults) in a vastly expensive ($80 billion a year) prison system, and not much else. Crime is down to levels last seen in the 1960s, but prison populations are among the highest in the world.
Taking a cue from state efforts, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. signaled a welcome turn away from mass incarceration when he announced Monday that federal prosecutors would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who had no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations.
In addition, Mr. Holder introduced a policy to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. Hopefully his action will begin to reduce overcrowding in the federal prison system and spur a national discussion about who needs to be in prison and how to address the drug problem.
Mandatory minimum sentences were part of the "get tough on crime" fervor that swept through state houses and Washington in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem, all too often, was that these laws swept up small fish for long sentences -- addicts who would have been better served by treatment programs -- or kept judges from considering extenuating circumstances.
We hire judges to use their judgment; mandatory minimums tie their hands. Each case is different, which is why individualized sentencing is supposed to be integral to the justice system. Mandatory minimums work at cross purposes and result in a lot of long sentences.
States, which house most of the nation's inmates and thus bear much of the cost of the jailmania that swept the country in the 1980s and '90s, have been looking for ways to reduce their nonviolent prison populations for several years.
Connecticut's prisons mirrored the national trend, going from 3,000 inmates in 1980 to nearly 20,000 five years ago. The population is now down to 17,000. To bring it down further, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly have taken such steps as decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, legalizing medical marijuana and implementing "risk reduction credits" to allow inmates to shorten their sentences through good behavior and participation in education and other programs.
The state dabbled with mandatory minimums. One of the last dabbles adds an automatic two years on the sentence of someone arrested for drug activity within 1,500 feet of a school or day care. In Hartford, that's virtually the entire city. An effort to reduce the radius to 200 feet failed in the legislature this year, for reasons that aren't clear.
Some believe that mass incarceration is responsible for the drop in crime over the past 25 years, but researchers aren't sure. It could be that, or better policing, or more social programs. One researcher credits the elimination of lead in paint and gasoline; others credit the legalizing of abortion. What is clear is that the unintended consequences of mass incarceration -- the devastation of families and communities, usually minority communities, and the huge expense -- are unsustainable.
Mass incarceration didn't make the world safe from drug abuse (though the violent drug lords belong in jail). But what about the nonviolent users and addicts?
The only successful anti-drug program in the past 40 years involved a highly addictive substance called nicotine. From 1985 to 2003, the percentage of the U.S. population that smoked tobacco dropped from 42 percent to 21 percent.
This was not accomplished with mandatory minimum sentences, but with a public health approach involving taxation, regulation, treatment and education. The solution lies in that direction.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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