Federal and state government initiatives on the drug epidemic and sentencing reform are working at cross-purposes.
Both are attempting to come to grips with the ever-increasing epidemic of opiate and heroin addiction that has left death, crime and ruined lives in its wake at all levels of society. Both Congress and the Massachusetts Legislature have acted to support drug education and addiction prevention and treatment. The subject has been prominent in presidential primary debates in both parties.
Meanwhile, Congress has just passed a bipartisan sentencing reform bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for second and third time drug offenders. Massachusetts also has under consideration proposals to eliminate or reduce mandatory minimum mandatory sentences for “non-violent drug offenders.”
President Obama, ignoring existing law as is his wont, so far this year has granted clemency to 306 persons, most of them drug offenders serving stiff statutory mandatory sentences. Reportedly the president will sharply increase the pace of these commutations during the remaining months of his term.
These “sentencing reform” efforts are not a part of the solution to the drug addiction scourge. In fact they undermine it.
These “nonviolent drug offenders” are drug dealers and traffickers, not people possessing drugs for personal use. Persons charged with “straight possession” (possession of small amounts for personal use) are usually not convicted at all on the first few drug possession charges. For repeated straight possession offenses the penalty will typically be probation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, deaths from heroin and opioid overdoses exceeded those from automobile accidents last year. These deaths and the rest of the human misery and crime caused by drug addiction could not occur without the efforts of drug dealers and traffickers. Some of these drug dealers may not be violent but they are as dangerous as any violent felon.
Incarceration is in disrepute these days. FBI statistics show that per capita crime rates for both violent and property crime are down sharply over the last 25 years. Prison populations and incarceration rates have sharply increased over that same period of time.
Why, some ask, are incarcerations at a record high, when crime rates are at record lows? The answer is that crime is down precisely because so many criminals are in jail.
Incarceration works. People inclined to commit planned crimes (as opposed to crimes of passion) are often deterred by the prospect of incarceration. At a minimum they are not able to market drugs to our kids or commit burg- laries and robberies while they are in jail.
Basic economic law tell us that reducing penalties for drug dealers and traffickers will only increase the supply of those drugs and their peddlers.
Brian R. Merrick was a Massachusetts District Court judge for 25 years and blogs at http://www.monkfishoncape.com.