I have spent a lot of my legal career working on issues of criminal justice. The question is – if America has only five percent of the world’s population, why do we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners? Are Americans really five times more crime-prone than the rest of the world? Or are we just making bad policy choices that devastate families, leave major problems like drug addiction and mental illness unaddressed, and cheat good law-abiding citizens by pretending that prison will break the cycle of crime and recidivism and make us all safer?
My career has been devoted to breaking the cycle. Every prosecutor, every judge, every public defender knows that every unaddressed problem of addiction, mental illness, homelessness or PTSD is an invitation to more recidivism. I served years on the board of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, where judges, prosecutors and public defenders came together to make sure that criminal-case outcomes were focused on addiction and recidivism prevention. And I’ve worked on numerous projects for the U.S. Department of Justice exploring ways that judges, prosecutors and public defenders can collaborate on constructive crime-prevention case resolutions.
Of course, law enforcement tools are essential in going after big-time drug dealers. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our expensive failures in the drug war, it’s that law enforcement can’t do it alone. What about the addicts who sell small quantities to support their own habit? Treatment holds greater promise of breaking the cycle of drugs, crime and recidivism – that is, greater benefit to public safety, at lower cost.
In the face of all this experience, Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are returning to their long-standing favorites for addressing drugs: more law enforcement, prison, and even executions. We must be smarter than this.
Opioids, as legal prescription drugs, also present a special challenge. Unlike illegal drugs, there are huge opportunities for regulation and training via the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession. And an ounce of prevention, education and treatment is worth a pound of punishment.