Stop ‘locking in’ the drug problem, prosecutors say

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In recent years, drug addiction has been portrayed as a public health crisis, but that perspective has mostly been lacking in American courtrooms.

Prosecutors’ emphasis on sanctions has been both “ineffective” and “counterproductive,” a webinar sponsored by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice said this week. from New York.

Speakers at the webinar called for a “holistic” approach focused on the individual rather than the crime.

“People shouldn’t be treated like all they are is crime,” said Andre Ward, associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy, the Fortune Society.

Ward, along with other medical experts and justice reformers, noted that until recently, the traditional approach to drug-addicted offenders was already distorted by racial prejudice.

“Drugs in the black community have been treated very differently from drugs in the white community,” admitted Sherry Boston, a prosecutor for the Stone Mountain Judicial District in DeKalb County, Georgia.

But the outlook has changed since the onset of the opioid epidemic, which wreaked tragic havoc on white communities in the heart of the United States.

“There was a time in inner cities and urban areas where the proliferation of crack was seen as a drug-related violence problem,” Black said.

“The truth is that it is all a public health crisis. But people weren’t willing to look at it through the lens of public health until it affected a different category of people. “

The change coincides with a time when more and more people are recognizing the failure of draconian drug laws and the infamous war on drugs, said David Cloud, Amend’s research director at UCSF School of Medicine. .

“Deprivation and injustice”

Ward described his own experience growing up in “deprivation and inequity” in Brooklyn’s eastern New York neighborhood in the 1970s, where the choices he made led him to the streets, to traffic. drugs and jail time.

Coming from communities where equity and resources are denied to people of color leads to those choices, Ward said. It all culminates in places like “Rikers’ Island, where a pain and trauma unit is housed.”

Now prosecutors can engage with stakeholders, such as social workers, nonprofits, rehabilitation organizations, lawyers and family members, Ward said.

“It’s really important for prosecutors to understand that not all drug laws were passed to solve the real problem of drug crimes,” Boston said. “They were passed to get rid of the problem by locking down the problem.”

Dan Satterberg, a King County District Attorney in Washington State, agreed.

“The laws regulating the use of illegal drugs in America have always been set by politics,” he said.

Satterberg added that “harm reduction” programs can make a big difference. These include the provision of clean syringes, safe injection sites, and naloxone distribution programs.

“It’s about meeting people where they are,” Cloud said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a backlog of serious crimes, and prosecutors must decide on priorities for drug cases, panelists said.

“What prosecutors have is discretion,” Satterberg said. “I can decide where to put my resources. I can decide not to prosecute people with small amounts of drugs.

IIIP published A new approach: A Prosecutor’s Guide to Advancing a Public Health Response to Drug Use and several corresponding videos that provide prosecutors with strategies to advance drug policy based on the principles of harm reduction, public health and racial justice.

“The central purpose of this guide is to provide practical advice to prosecutors on how they can use their discretion in ways that promote public health,” said IIP.

Nancy Bilyeau is associate editor of The Crime Report.

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