In retrospect, the nation’s “War on Drugs” from decades past turned out in some ways to be like the earlier conflict in Vietnam: A lot of resources spent and lives lost with very little gained but a perpetual stalemate. That campaign proved to be ineffective in battling the problem, though wildly successful at filling prisons nationwide.
The specter of that effort was dug up last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved to seek maximum charges from prosecutors for federal drug offenses, overturning an Obama Administration initiative to avoid “mandatory minimum” penalties in cases that involve nonviolent offenders.
Sessions’ move touched off reaction from supporters and detractors, some applauding a “get tough” throwback to the 1980s, others fearing a return to lengthier prison stints for more offenders.
The goal of the Obama policy was to give judges discretion to direct drug offenders into treatment or lighter penalties when prosecutors seek lesser charges. That would target the true kingpins of the drug trade rather than users or low-level dealers. Of the nation’s 188,000-plus prisoners, 46 percent are in for drug offenses. Many are a true danger to society, but not all, a distinction that needs to be made.
But to assume the feds are looking to lock up everyone caught with a few ounces of marijuana or crack cocaine misses a key point. Federal drug cases usually involve more heinous crimes and harsher sentences than those handled by state and local courts. U.S. law enforcement agencies tend to target high-volume traffickers, the kind of offenders not likely to be rehabilitated by diversion programs.
That said, the idea of steering many toward rehab instead of prison remains a valid option for those who need help, not a locked cell. Filling prisons with nonviolent offenders takes away any hope of a productive life, turns many into career lawbreakers and disproportionately affects African-Americans and other minorities. It leaves kids without fathers and mothers, often starting their lives on the wrong path. And maintaining prisons and their staff, plus the care and feeding of those housed there, doesn’t come cheaply for taxpayers.
Nationwide and closer to home, many leaders of both parties agree and have created models worth emulating.
Some 15 years ago, Superior Court Judge John Girardeau began Hall County’s first Drug Court. The program took first-time offenders, many of them teens, and directed them to treatment instead of prison. Over a two-year period, participants are tested to keep them clean while they perform community service and undergo counseling. As of last year, more than 600 had graduated into productive lives while supporting themselves in a program that costs a fraction of imprisonment.
Now managed by Judge Jason Deal, Hall’s program spawned other judicial efforts to help nonviolent offenders blend back into society. The success stories restore belief that redemption and rehabilitation are worth the effort.
The goal isn’t to be soft on those who head up trafficking efforts, or anyone who commits or threatens violent acts in the drug trade, but rather those who have hurt no one but themselves and need a way out.
“A lot of what we’re dealing with in Georgia is people charged with low-level offenses like possession, and those are the folks we’re trying to divert in Drug Court,” Deal said Friday.
Another Republican took notice and decided to spread the idea statewide. Gov. Nathan Deal, father of the judge and a former prosecutor, applied the idea to his justice reform agenda to limit the state’s prison population to hardened criminals and steer others into “accountability courts.” The state now has 139 such courts in 47 out of its 49 judicial circuits, with the number of new participants up 147 percent last year.
In 2009, 58 percent of Georgia prison beds were occupied by the most serious offenders; that’s now 67 percent. Meanwhile the percentages of African-American men and juveniles incarcerated are down.
Such a policy also could apply to the nation’s growing opioid epidemic, which has ruined thousands of lives. Many lawmakers and governors now prefer to approach drug addiction as a disease, not a crime.
“We should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ problem,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose state is among the hardest hit by the opioid crisis.
“For people who were addicts, that’s an illness, and addicts needed treatment beds, and professional drug dealers needed prison beds,” said former U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey, a federal prosecutor in Kentucky.
Sessions and federal officials should recognize that distinction. Both prosecutors and judges should have discretion to take each case on its merits and determine whether rehabilitation or prison are the best alternatives. The more rigid their parameters, the more likely prisons will overflow with those who don’t need to be there. That space should be reserved for major dealers and violent offenders who should face the full brunt of the law.
It’s also time to acknowledge the failure of the “war on drugs” as an expensive mistake that incarcerated thousands needlessly as a panacea for a human problem much more complicated to solve than slamming a cell door.
And it’s another case where politicians at the national level can learn from leaders at the state and local levels who have ideas that have been proven to work.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to email@example.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.