WASHINGTON — You would have been hard-pressed to find a police chief in his office in the last few days.
Dozens of them were in Washington, lobbying to get more people out of prison. They want to end the mandatory jail terms judges are forced to bestow for what are seen less as criminal acts than cries of desperation.
America’s prisons are overflowing. The United States has more people in jail than any other country, including some of the harshest, most backward nations. Democratic and Republican presidential candidates may not agree on much, but they accept one statistic: With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. For every 100,000 Americans, 716 are jailed — a far, far higher rate than anyplace else.
According to the Department of Justice, 80 percent of those in prison or on probation or parole have addiction problems with alcohol or drugs, often as a result of overprescribed prescriptions for painkillers. When the prescriptions run out, the patient seeks an alternative, often cheap heroin.
Shockingly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die from drug overdoses than motor vehicle accidents — more than 100 every day. It is difficult to find a family in America — mine included — that has not been adversely affected by illicit drugs. GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina connected with many when she revealed her stepdaughter died from a drug overdose.
Drug addiction “doesn’t discriminate,” said President Barack Obama. “It touches everybody.”
Obama just put out a memorandum to heads of executive offices and agencies spelling out the problem: He said the epidemic of prescription pain medication and heroin deaths is devastating families and shattering communities across the country.
The government said 259 million pain prescriptions were given out in 2012. Prescription drugs, especially for pain, have been increasingly implicated in drug overdose deaths, such cases quadrupling between 1999 and 2013. The White House says addiction to prescription pain medication is the strongest risk factor for heroin addiction.
As drug use soared, an alarmed Congress and worried state legislatures began mandating heavy sentences for drug addicts as well as drug dealers and criminal traffickers. The United States spends upwards of $75 billion on correctional procedures and facilities every year. We don’t really know the true figure.
Many police chiefs and sheriffs have banded with federal, state and local prosecutors in the year-old Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. The group argues it’s time to stop imposing automatic harsh sentences for the addicted, the mentally ill and non-violent offenders such as shoplifters. For one thing, they argue that drug addicts, once freed and untreated, often end up out on the streets seeking to use again.
“With momentum for criminal justice reform accelerating, we want to leave no doubt where the law enforcement community stands: We need less incarceration, not more, to keep all Americans safe,” the group said in a new report.
The law enforcers want a number of nonviolent felonies reclassified as misdemeanors and say they are working to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences to give judges more latitude in deciding who goes to prison and for how long.
Obama announced in West Virginia, the state with the nation’s highest rate of fatal drug overdoses, that he is mandating more training for federal doctors in prescribing drugs and requiring federal health insurance plans to provide treatment for addiction.
He wants to expand use of federally approved treatment drugs such as buprenorphine, buprenorphine-naloxone combination products, methadone, and naltrexone in combination with counseling, other behavioral therapies and patient monitoring to help addicts recover. He asked for specific federal action plans in three months.
It’s a start. And law enforcement officials demanding less incarceration is the right move. But drug and mental health treatments are costly and hard to get, especially in an era of severe cuts in domestic spending. Also, there is an unending demand from the public and from pharmaceutical companies for the federal government to approve ever more heavy-duty, potentially addicting painkillers.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may send her email at [email protected].
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