Almost 500 people died from opioid overdoses on Long Island in 2016. Nationally, about 33,000 people died from this plague.
That’s three times more than gun homicides in the United States in 2016. It’s three times the number of people killed by drunken driving. It’s not a problem we can arrest our way out of. And it’s a bad idea to spend exponentially more money on beds in prisons than beds in rehabilitation facilities.
But that is Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to combat the epidemic, with a strategy we know from experience does not work, and one a majority of experts and politicians across the political spectrum already have rejected.
Sessions recently ordered federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible charges and sentences against suspects, rolling back changes made under President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 that reduced the federal prison population for the first time in decades.
The drug addiction and deaths on Long Island and across the country are new outbreaks of an old problem.
We’ve seen such epidemics of drug use before, including heroin. Cities were ravaged by crack cocaine addiction and associated violence in the 1980s and ’90s.
That nation’s response to the crack epidemic was a SWAT-style crackdown that escalated over two decades, bringing tougher laws and longer prison terms thanks to mandatory minimum sentences and a culture that demanded the harshest possible charges.
That’s how the United States got the largest prison system in the world. But experts generally agree the strategies didn’t do much to curtail waves of addiction or violence, which largely faded as addicts got sober or died. And the war on drugs had a huge racial and socioeconomic component. Minorities were jailed at a higher rate and for far longer than their white counterparts for what were essentially identical crimes.
Just a few months ago, the need for new approaches on drugs and an overhaul of the criminal justice system, particularly on the federal level, seemed to be practically the only things uniting politicians and activists from Sen. Bernie Sanders to the conservative Koch brothers. The United States has about 200,000 federal prisoners, about half of them held on charges related to drugs, and another 2 million in state and county jails, many in for drugs, too. Between the mid-1980s and 2011, the average federal sentence doubled, and the percentage of federal offenders sentenced to prison rose from 50 percent to 90 percent. Some percentage of these inmates are violent criminals, but a great many aren’t. Incarcerating them costs governments a fortune and creates huge societal problems as families are broken up and potential breadwinners spend years behind bars.
There was nearly bipartisan approval in Congress of a bill last year that would have relaxed federal sentences for low-level drug offenders. That’s a very smart idea, in line with the more than 30 states that have moved to shorten sentences and expand alternatives to imprisonment. Unfortunately, a senator named Jeff Sessions killed the legislation in a move bolstered by the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump and his promise to restore law and order in a nation he described, incorrectly, as besieged by violent crime. Then Trump won the election and Sessions became attorney general.
The criminal justice system is broken, and Sessions is compounding its flaws by ratcheting up a war on marijuana even as more voters and states are moving to legalize the drug for medicinal and recreational use. In a nation where polls show 60 percent support for marijuana legalization, Sessions is so out of step that as a senator he pushed for people convicted of marijuana trafficking for a second time to be eligible for the death sentence.
Federal law-enforcement needs to stop pushing marijuana interdictions and crackdowns and understand that at this point, federal prosecutions directed at the marijuana business create the conditions under which crime thrives.
It is important that serious drug dealers and traffickers are prosecuted and put away — and that the violent ones do hard time. But it’s also important that mostly harmless addicts and users, many of whom double as small-time dealers, get treatment instead.
Spending $70 billion a year on incarceration is a misuse of funds. Contrast that with the federal government’s promise in April to distribute $485 million among the states to fight opioid addiction. Meanwhile, federal, state and local governments spend about $40 billion a year fighting a war on drugs that will remain unwinnable as long as addicts want to buy illicit substances.
Redirecting money spent on prisons and prosecutions to drug treatment and addiction prevention is the way to change policy, save lives and help families. Fighting this extraordinary wave of drug addiction is going to take a creative, multipronged approach. Focusing solely on strategies that never worked in the name of being tough on crime is an expensive and deadly plan.