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  • Theresa Squillacote

Revival of Discredited, Disastrous War on Drugs

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Mass Incarceration

It is not unexpected, though nonetheless lamentable, that Attorney General Sessions has announced a resumption of tough federal sentencing policies for U.S. Attorneys to follow. On May 8, Sessions and his top lieutenant Stephen Cook, former president of the National Association of U.S. Attorney, directed U.S. attorneys to resume the pre-Obama era policy of seeking the harshest sentence available for any and all drug offenses. While the courts retain greater flexibility since the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines were declared advisory only in 2005, nonetheless prosecutorial policy will still impact process.

Parties across the political spectrum have over the last several decades noted the complete failure of tough federal sentencing, the drug war and inflexible mandatory minimums, a failure both in terms of reducing crime and recidivism and in terms of the harsh social costs associated with these policies. States, NGOs, and other entities have instead developed alternatives: elimination of mandatory minimums, restoration of parole, and alternatives to incarceration policies or ATI. ATI has proven to be hugely successful in diverting lower-end drug offenses and other minor offenses to community-based, non-incarcerative alternatives.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission spent the majority of its last public hearing on April 18th seeking policy guidance to promote ATI and there have been in numerable success stories at the state and local level. Here in New York that includes the public/private partnership Red Hook Community Justice Center, which is the nation’s first multi-jurisdictional community court. These policies promote rehabilitation and look to address the structural causes underlying offense conduct. The Red Hook Center has had clear success: 78% of offenders receive alternative treatment, such as community service or social service alternatives. Recidivism was reduced by 10% for adults, and by 20% for juveniles, with a sustained decrease in the crime rate of the surrounding community. See Lee, C.G., F. Cheesman, D. Rottman, R. Swaner, S. Lambson, M. Rempel & R. Curtis (2013). A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Williamsburg VA: National Center for State Courts. (The report is available for download at: Cost savings were also significant.

It is a shame that the Trump Administration promotes rhetoric over results, especially when the cost of that rhetoric has resulted in, for decades, the U.S. leading the world by a substantial margin in the rate of incarceration -- a label not to be worn proudly.

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