Eric Holder's Alternative Sentencing for Drug Offenders

Eric Holder’s Drug Sentencing ReformsOf the 219,512 inmates occupying American Prisons, a whopping 47 percent are there for drug offenses. Many of those offenders are small-time drug offenders -meaning those who are street-level dealers or couriers. When these nonviolent offenders -who aren’t connected to gangs or cartels- appear in court, they sometimes are hit with larger sentences than higher-level drug dealers who may get off easy by plea bargaining.In other words, the girlfriend who fills in when her guy is gone for a few hours or the guy down the block who was selling drugs to friends to finance his own habit will be given the current mandatory sentence of five to ten years in prison, while those in it on a large scale may not, or may simply be given the same five-to-ten years.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal would not only allow judges to take into consideration an individual’s circumstances, it might also open up the possibility of alternative sentencing options for drug offenders. Drug treatment and community-based programs may be better options for these offenders, saving the current harsh sentencing guidelines for the sometimes violent kingpins and cartel leaders. Texas and Arkansas are examples of diverting drug offenders into treatment programs or early release for good behavior.

Not only are our nation’s prisons bloated, they are ineffective deterrents when it comes to drug addiction or alcoholism.

“By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation, while making our expenditures smarter and more productive,” said Holder in his San Francisco speech.

Sending alcoholics to prison gets them off the street, but is it of any help?

Addicts or others involved peripherally in the drug culture sometimes have few options if they want to turn their lives around. Prison becomes another extension of the desperate lives many of them live. Taking an addict from the streets, sending him to a place where he may continue his addiction if he chooses, to a place where he lives the same desperate, bare-bones survival he came from, then returns him, hardened by the experience, back to the streets is of little value in tackling the real problem. Instead of “reformed” or “better,” he’s worse.

Wouldn’t the logical choice be to send them to a place where at least they have a chance to change? These dealers or addicts – even alcoholics who break the law may need to be off the streets, but instead of the cost of housing, feeding and caring for them in a place that might make them worse criminals, why not some sort of long-term treatment? Detox them. Educate them about what they’re dealing with. Teach them coping skills. Let them build self-esteem by contributing to their care and housing (cooking, cleaning and other living skills). If they have mental health issues, they would be more easily detected and dealt with in such a setting. Addicts may be reluctant to enter treatment when ‘family ordered,’ but sentence them to it and they’ll go, like it or not!

Maybe a bit simplistic, but incarceration at a treatment facility may be a positive solution in our nation’s war on drugs.

Will Matthews, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said it well in the San Jose Mercury News article, stating that it‘s time for states to “once and for all abandon the failed and costly policies of the past … that have left far too many people locked up for far too long who don’t need to be kept behind bars to keep our families and communities safe.”

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