Rationality Reemerges with Attorney General Peter Neronha’s Drug Policy

It would seem we have an Attorney General who embraces rationality and realism over politics and rhetoric and I, for one, am pleased.

The drug problem in the United States, and worldwide, is complicated. On the most visible side, you have addicts, deaths from overdoses, hospitalizations, and lost opportunity by convictions for possession.

On the other side, you have the intricate relationship of governments of producing countries with the enormous money generated by the cartels. Drug money funds politics, political candidates, and corruption.

Over the last several decades, the trend in the US was to increase punishment and eliminate rehabilitative services for inmates. There was an apparent shift to warehousing more inmates with no consideration for what happens when released.

Recidivism among drug offenders reached 60-70%. Most offenders released from prison are rearrested within a year. Something is not working. There is another troubling trend buried within the change toward punishment that should concern us all. The shift to private prisons. Logic would dictate that businesses with a vested interest in a steady, or growing, supply of “customers” would have little incentive to reduce crime or incarceration rates.

In 2008, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo ordering a reduction in using private prisons by Federal authorities. Just days after Jeff Sessions became US Attorney General, he rescinded the order. Private prison stocks soared as the prison industry resumed its growth. Once again, money and politics trumped rationality. (https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/18/politics/private-prison-department-of-justice/index.html)

AG Neronha’s proposal brings rationality to our drug policy. Recognizing the accepted medical definition of drug addiction as a treatable mental health condition, shifting the focus from punishment to treatment and prevention is sound policy.

While the policy is welcome, it must go further. Reducing the number of minor offenders sent to prison is a good start and removing the stigma of a felony conviction will help reintegrate those with drug issues back into society but treating those with mental illnesses, both inside prisons and in society, is also a pressing problem. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/criminals-need-mental-health-care/)

With the trend toward punishment, they incarcerated those with mental illnesses at an even faster rate than the general population. Until we recognize the revolving door of the mentally ill sent to prisons lacking any mental health services, released after they complete their sentence, and rearrested because of lack of mental health services nothing will change.

AG Neronha wisely recognized the Criminal Justice system in Rhode Island needed a change. He is in good company with other states who have reduced recidivism through “Second chance” type programs, increased treatment opportunities, and punishment tempered by a goal of reintegration into society. (https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Reducing-Recidivism_State-Deliver-Results_2017.pdf)

Some would argue that such policies will encourage drug use, will increase the number of addicts because it reduces the preventive effect of punishment, will be only a progressive “feel good” effort with little to no benefit.

In the 1980s, Congress passed some of the most Draconian criminal sanctions to deal with the then rising scourge of crack cocaine. Possession of relatively small amounts resulted in life sentences. Yet the effect on the street was minimal, and the adverse impact on the minority population was devastating.

The numbers do not lie. We lead the world in prison population, and the numbers are growing. Whatever we have done to this point, it is not working. (http://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison-population-total?field_region_taxonomy_tid=All)

We can do better than that, and Mr. Neronha’s proposal is a tremendous step in the right direction.

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