An epidemic of heroin use in Wisconsin and around the country is prompting changes in the way the criminal justice system deals with drug users. Increasingly, heroin addiction is seen as a health problem and not strictly an issue for law enforcement. And as mid- and low-level drug offenders crowd prisons, lawmakers and others are acknowledging a need to reform drug sentencing laws.
In Wisconsin,Governor Scott Walker signed seven bills related to heroin addiction in April 2014. Among their provisions is immunity from drug possession charges for people who take an overdose victim to an emergency room or call 911.
The legislation also increases alternatives and diversion programs to provide substance abuse treatment for people accused of crimes. And it creates programs for heroin addicts in rural areas.
The Wisconsin legislation comes as reformers seek a more enlightened approach to the way we deal with drug addiction.
Experts point out that the war on drugs has been a massive failure, with the federal prisons overloaded with non-violent drug offenders. As the Huffington Post reported recently, half of federal inmates are locked up because of drug charges.
Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called for sweeping changes in the federal criminal justice system, criticizing mandatory minimum sentencing laws that result in lengthy incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Under Holder, the Department of Justice acknowledges that some federal drug sentencing laws are trapping people in a cycle of “poverty, criminality and incarceration.”
AsHolder says, “Statistics have shown — and all of us have seen — that high incarceration rates and longer-than-necessary prison terms have not played a significant role in materially improving public safety, reducing crime or strengthening communities.”
Across the country, prosecutors are experimenting with alternatives to locking up drug offenders for lengthy periods. New programs aim to help offenders deal with their addiction problems. In Wisconsin, drug treatment courts let nonviolent offenders stay out of prison by working and getting counseling.
Reforms also would reduce prison costs. Over the past three decades, the number of inmates in federal prisons has increased by a shocking 500%. Federal legislation known as the Smarter Sentencing Act would reform nonviolent drug crime sentencing and save an estimated $4 billion.It would give federal judges new discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders, based upon the individual circumstances of the offender.
In Wisconsin, more than 34,000 people were in prison or jail as of 2011, according to the Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates reform of sentencing laws. Recent research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that the state’s incarceration rates were the highest in the country for black men. No doubt that is due in part to unduly harsh sentencing for drug crimes.
It is clear that incarceration is a losing proposition when it comes to addressing the problem of drugs in our society. A far better, and cheaper, approach is to offer offenders a chance to regain control of their lives and become responsible citizens.
Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel:Scott Walker signs bills aimed at fighting Wisconsin’s heroin problems
The Hill: CBO: Drug sentencing reform saves $4B
Huffington Post:America’s top cop wages a long battle to dial back the drug war
The Washington Post: Federal prison population drops for first time in 3 decades, Justice Department says
The Sentencing Project: Drug Policy
NPR: Wisconsin prisons incarcerate most black men in U.S.