Opinion: It’s time to change how we prosecute drug crimes

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(Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Every year, there are over 1.5 million drug-related arrests in the United States. And yet, during a 12-month period ending in April, over 100,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses - nearly 30 percent more fatal overdoses than just a year earlier. And while the nation relies on the criminal system to address substance use, these alarming figures make clear that traditional prosecution and severe punishment not only fail to reduce the markets for illicit drugs, they also contribute to one of America’s worst health crises.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Every day, prosecutors make choices that directly impact the rights, health and livelihood of people who use drugs. It is imperative that they understand how their actions can negatively impact the safety of the communities they are bound to protect and how a public health approach to drug policies could save thousands of lives every year.

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DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.

Credit: contributed

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.
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DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

This fall, the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College (IIP) launched a Public Health Initiative with prosecutors, defense attorneys, people who have personally experienced incarceration for drug-related crimes and public health experts to determine alternative ways elected prosecutors can tackle drug crimes.

Both of us participated in these dynamic meetings. Although we all had different backgrounds and visions for the future, our conversations were driven by a shared understanding that traditional prosecution has largely been ineffective in solving the social, economic and racial inequities underlying drug-related crimes.

Six months of work culminated in a wide range of recommendations presented in a written toolkit and short video series featuring directly impacted people, health experts and prosecutors. These firsthand accounts show the disruptive and traumatic effects of incarceration on those arrested for drug-related crimes. The goal is to inspire prosecutors to reframe the way they consider charging, diverting and pleading drug-related crimes with a focus on harm reduction rather than exclusively on punishment.

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Alissa Heydari

Credit: contributed

Alissa Heydari
Caption
Alissa Heydari

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

First and foremost, the toolkit encourages prosecutors to engage more deeply with people who have gone through the criminal system, and been incarcerated, for drug-related crimes. All prosecutors should also learn the basics of substance use disorder and the effects of an arrest and prosecution on a person’s life. By making decisions informed by medical research, prosecutors can help community members receive evidence-based medical treatment and avoid overdoses.

Second, prosecutors must assess their offices’ policies to determine whether charging certain drug-related crimes is necessary for community safety. Declining to prosecute a drug offense does not mean a prosecutor condones drug use. The primary job of prosecutors is to keep their communities safe, and sometimes that means providing services instead of seeking long sentences. An office that chooses not to prosecute certain cases can dramatically affect what types of arrests the police make, and how the public views certain drug-related acts, such as possession for personal use.

A third recommendation stems from some of the working group’s most productive and thought-provoking discussions about crimes committed by those who do not have substance use disorder. As the experiences of directly impacted working group members laid bare, drug-related crimes are often fueled by socioeconomic struggles and a lack of access to high-quality education. Traditional drug prosecutions often target people who have turned to selling drugs as an escape from poverty, not the leaders of cartels or violent drug organizations. This focus consumes precious resources, leads to unnecessary incarceration and does nothing to stop violent drug traffickers. By decreasing incarceration rates for low-level drug offenses, prosecutors can help people find the support they need.

In DeKalb County, where one of us is the elected district attorney, line prosecutors are trained to evaluate all aspects of a drug case, including motivating factors for the accused and to understand the difference between low-level and high-level drug sellers. The district attorney’s office has a unit specifically dedicated to researching and assigning alternative community programs, which works to divert people arrested for selling drugs into education programs and job counseling, where appropriate.

Of course, this approach does not mean we ignore the rights of victims and their need to be made whole when harmed, or to have people held accountable for their actions. Instead, the hope is that focusing on the root causes of drug-related crimes will lead to a reduction in other offenses which, in many instances, are the result of someone struggling with substance use disorder. In this regard, we are seeking context and balance in prosecutorial discretion.

This is the culture change we need nationwide to shift away from the War on Drugs, which has failed to stop illicit drug markets and substance use disorder. As prosecutors, we must change our policies: we cannot fulfill our pledge to public safety without taking a public health approach to drug-related crimes.

Sherry Boston is the district attorney of DeKalb County. Alissa Marque Heydari is deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College.

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