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Low-level drug crimes: more rehabilitation, less incarceration

Justice is supposed to be about proper proportion. The age-old image of the balancing scales is merely one symbol of this.

In drug cases, however, many commentators believe that the scales of justice have been out of balance for many years due to the nation's misconceived "war on drug." Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder added his influential voice to those calling for reform of drug policy and practice.

Specifically, Holder called for federal prosecutors to exercise more restraint on bringing charges in low-level drug cases where the defendants could face long, mandatory minimum sentences. The attorney general's action could be compared to the step taken last year in New Jersey, where a new law allows people charged with nonviolent drug offenses to be diverted to rehabilitation centers instead of being incarcerated.

The New Jersey Legislature passed the bill last year and Gov. Chris Christie signed it into law. The new law reflects changes in drug policy in New Jersey, and those changes are also part of the national trends expressed in the new federal drug policy announced by Attorney General Holder last week.

Both changes - in New Jersey law and in federal policy - are important. For far too long, harsh mandatory minimum sentences have sent nonviolent drug offenders to prison for extended periods of time. This has not only had a negative effect on the lives of those prisoners and their families. It has also been very costly in the expenditure of scarce criminal justice resources.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Congress will actually change mandatory minimum sentencing laws that remain on the books. Because of those laws, 47 percent of the inmates in federal prisons are there for drug crimes.

Source: North, "Herald News: Smart sentencing on low-level drug crimes," August 14, 2013

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