War on drugs retirement long overdue, costly

— The Santa Fe New Mexican

The decision by the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder to back away from mandatory jail sentences for low-level federal drug offenders is long overdue.

Finally, the War on Drugs is being retired. With some 2.2 million people in jail, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, the United States can’t keep locking the door and throwing away the key. Especially, not with nonviolent drug users or small-time dealers whose major crime is that they chose to get high.

It’s too expensive.

The prisons became clogged because of mandatory minimum sentences that sent people to prison whatever their particular situation or background. Federal sentencing gave no leeway.

Holder’s notion is to side-step the rules. Prosecutors will stop recording the amount of drugs found on nonviolent dealers or users who are not associated with larger gangs. That avoids mandatory sentencing laws based, for example, on how much marijuana or meth someone is carrying.

The announcement Monday of the change on policy is a clear — and welcome — cease-fire in a War on Drugs that became instead, a war against communities, families and young people.

Declared in 1971 by then-President Richard Nixon, the result of this war on drug use has been overflowing prisons. The United States, with but 5 percent of the world’s population, houses 25 percent of all prisoners.

Drug-related offenses are a major factor in prison overcrowding. An estimated half of inmates in federal prisons are locked up for drug offenses. Some 60 percent of those receive sentences under mandatory sentencing provisions — meaning judges have no discretion.

Holder’s announcement deals with federal drug laws, but his sensible decision to change how drug crimes are prosecuted could continue a push for reform at the state and local levels.

Those reforms — many already happening — should include a redirection of public dollars from building prisons to drug treatment programs so that society treats the root cause, not the symptoms of crime.

 

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