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Attorney general calls for harsher sentences on drug offenses despite conflicts

This piece originally appeared in Addiction Now. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has given an order to prosecutors stating they should seek the full charges in each criminal offense, reversing key Obama administration violations on drug offenses and conflicting with the goals of the White House to combat drug abuse, established conventions of addiction treatment, and what policy solutions to the drug epidemic should look like.

The 180-degree shift in policy is designed to propel some of Sessions’ main goals, one of which is combating crimes concerning drugs and dealing.

In his memo announcing the change in strategy, Sessions called for more uniform sentencing and a return to Bush-era policies of mandatory minimum sentences, a practice critics say is detrimental to rehabilitation and keeps drug addicts unnecessarily imprisoned when they are convicted of a nonviolent offense.

“I think when you take together the approach to sentencing and the changes to the Affordable Care Act, they’re going to cause significant challenges to provide treatment and keep [drug addicts] out of the justice system when appropriate,” said Jason Ziedenberg, research and policy director at the Justice Policy Institute.

“There is no evidence that a mandatory sentence will curb crime or drug use. All this is going to mean is a person who was going to serve seven years is going to serve 15. It’s so much more about what is going on with that person.”
When Eric Holder was the attorney general during the Obama administration, there was a statute that allowed prosecutors to individually tailor and combine shorter sentences with drug rehabilitation treatment, which resulted in the person remaining out of the justice system and seeking recovery within their community, Ziedenberg said.
“Those prosecutors didn’t have to seek that full sentence,” he said. “Under what Sessions directed last week, he’s basically saying seek the full sentence.”

The attorney general has been known for his harsh stance on drug offenders, and views that drug abuse is inextricably bound to crime.

The aim of the new policy, Sessions suggested at the Department of Justice when he announced the shift, is to “un-handcuff” prosecutors, alleviate them from micromanagement, and enforce the laws on the books that Congress has already passed in order to crack down on drug abuse and dealing.

“There are people that are simply selling drugs,” Ziedenberg said. “But we believe if you make federal investments in incarceration, you’re basically taking money from treatment.”

Pushing for the harshest sentences will could raise the already bloated numbers of people incarcerated in jails and prisons. According to the Prison Policy Institute, the U.S. currently holds around 2.3 million prisoners, and one in five of those people are incarcerated for a drug offense.

“We see Sessions saying seek the whole sentence, which leads to a bigger prison population … which means more money locked in the budget,” he said.

The Justice Policy Institute determined in a report that the yearly cost of incarcerating a drug offender in Maryland was $20,000 and the cost of treatment was $4,000. The report also showed that treatment can reduce substance abuse and recidivism, and rebuild communities.

Another study by RTI International showed that replacing prison terms with drug abuse treatment could save billions in criminal justice costs.

Jeff Sessions’ decision to promote harsher sentencing is also at odds with the rhetoric coming out of the White House. President Trump has consistently called for the need for treatment and rehabilitation along with ally Governor Chris Christie, but the moves of the Attorney General conflict with the message both on Trump’s campaign trail as well as his approach to the issue now that he is in the White House. Years of evidence from the 40-year War on Drugs shows harsher charges and mandatory sentencing is directly at odds with his goals.

In addition, the Office of National Drug Policy has a proposed a cut of over 90 percent of funding in the 2018 federal budget, which Ziedenberg said tries to leverage people towards treatment. “Most that have a drug problem in this country don’t need to be in the justice system,” he said. “The other group, we have gradations for responses. They can include drug courts if the defendant and their lawyer agree that’s an appropriate response.”

“We have to get away from these mandatory sentences where [people with substance use disorders] spend years and years away from home. We should be keeping them out of prison as much as possible,” he said. “The Sessions stuff is disturbing because it’s a policy approach that will simply add years and won’t address the problem. We’re going to spend more money locking people up. It’s an 180-degree move in the wrong direction.”

This piece originally appeared in Addiction Now. 

You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryan_beitler and Jason at @JZCND.


Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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