Sunday, August 18, 2013

War On Drugs: U.S. Changes Its Sentencing Policies

Crime & Punishment

An article, by Peter Aldhous, in New Scientist says that after decades of handing down harsh prison terms for minor non-violent drug offenses, the United States is now focusing on a policy of strict probation combined with drug education to reduce incarceration time and the associated costs of maintaining prisons. This policy shift has already shown success in Texas, long considered a law-and-order state.

Aldhous writes:
On 12 August, when US attorney general Eric Holder announced a plan to reduce lengthy minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, it was a watershed moment. But it was also part of a wider shift towards a more nuanced approach to the US's drug problem in which individual states – rather than the federal government – are leading the way. Encouragingly, say researchers who study the US criminal justice system, this momentum is based on an accumulating body of scientific evidence on how best to tackle drug-related crime."We've been able to come at them with a portfolio of interventions that we know work," says Ryan King, research director for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project, based in Washington DC.

It's been a long time coming. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of drug offenders behind bars in the US swelled from 41,000 to 507,000. In large part, that is due to the lengthy sentences handed down since the war on drugs was ramped up in the 1980s. In a federal court, for instance, being convicted of possessing 5 grams of methamphetamine with intent to supply currently attracts a minimum of five years without parole.

Changing federal sentencing guidelines won't turn things around by itself: some 80 per cent of imprisoned drug offenders are incarcerated outside of the federal system, in state prisons and local jails. But states have been experimenting with changes to their policies for punishing drug offenders for some time, and the results have been encouraging. 
Step forward Texas, which in 2007 abandoned plans to spend $523 million building new prisons, and instead invested $241 million in a combination of policies including wider use of probation for drug offenders and expanding substance-abuse treatment programmes. Since then, not only has Texas avoided building new prisons, it now plans to close two facilities, with a combined capacity for more than 4000 inmates, by the end of this month. And crime rates in the state are down to levels not seen since the 1960s.
This is good news, showing that good thoughtful policies, based on scientific evidence, can make a difference in both reducing crime and saving federal and state governments money. That Texas, considered a law-and-order state, has come around to endorse this thinking is welcome news. Moreover, drug-education programs and substance-abuse treatment programs places illegal drug use where health professionals have long said it belongs: as a medical and health problem.

This policy shift on the part of the U.S. will not completely eradicate illicit drug use, but it will allow police and the justice system to focus its energies on more-important criminal matters. Without the need to waste valuable resources to arrest and prosecute small-time drug users and sellers and place them behind bars, the police and justice system can focus its energies best on large-scale suppliers, big-time criminals and violent drug offenders.

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You can read the rest of the article at [New Scientist]