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Reforming the Criminal Justice System
By Benjamin B. Tucker
Thank you for participating in We the People and signing a petition related to drug control policy in the United States. The public engagement these petitions provide informs our work moving forward. And in many cases, we've found it also offers an opportunity to explain our view -- and perhaps share some things we're already doing that you may not know about.
For example, we agree that it's time to move past the idea of an enforcement-only "War on Drugs" and focus on reforming the drug control, treatment, and incarceration systems in the United States. That's not just rhetoric; here are some specific steps we've taken:
- In August 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This important and long-overdue criminal justice reform dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. And more recently, we advocated for, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved, the retroactive application of these sentencing guidelines that became effective on November 1, 2011.
- This Administration strongly supports drug courts, which place non-violent drug offenders into treatment and provide them with supportive services instead of incarceration. There are over 2,600 drug courts across the Nation, diverting about 120,000 people a year into treatment instead of prison.
- The Administration is taking action to implement the Second Chance Act, which provides resources for programs that improve coordination of reentry services and policies at the state, tribal, and local levels, including demonstration grants, reentry courts, family-centered programs, substance abuse treatment, employment, mentoring, and other services needed to improve transition from prison and jail to communities and reduce recidivism.
- The Administration is working to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reenter society after serving their terms. This is vital because, of the more than two million people behind bars, 95 percent of them will be released back into their communities. Successful, evidence-based reentry initiatives provide a major opportunity to reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, and make our communities safer. To break the cycle, in 2010, the Department of Justice awarded $100 million in grants to support 178 state and local reentry programs that provide a wide range of services. In late September, the Department awarded another $83 million to 118 new grantees. In addition, the Department of Justice is successfully encouraging the creation of reentry courts for Federal offenders across the country.
Since day one, President Obama has led the way in reforming our Nation's drug policies by, among other things, addressing drug use and its consequences as a public health problem. Science shows that drug addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. It affects judgment and reasoning, and changes the brain's chemistry. By recognizing drug addiction as a disease, we are working to prevent and treat the underlying substance use disorders that drive a great deal of crime and recidivism in America. We believe that it makes much more sense to support programs that address underlying substance abuse problems before the condition becomes chronic and harder to treat. The President's National Drug Control Strategy balances efforts to prevent and treat substance use disorders with smart law enforcement efforts that work to dismantle drug trafficking organizations.
Our Nation's illegal drug problem harms every sector of our society. It tears apart families, strains our healthcare system, drives crime, and places tremendous burdens on our criminal justice system. In fact, last year, the Department of Justice released new data showing that drug use costs our society about $193 billion a year (PDF). Of that amount, $56 billion of those dollars can be traced directly back to costs associated solely with the criminal justice system.
While the vast majority of individuals in Federal and state prisons for drug offenses were sentenced for more serious drug trafficking offenses (as opposed to simple possession), these staggering costs reveal the need to continue reforming our Nation's criminal justice system to break the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest. We have made significant progress over the past three years, but more needs to be done.
We are working with our Federal partners to improve access to employment, eliminate barriers to accessing benefits and health care, and clarify Federal regulations and laws which have been misinterpreted as erecting barriers to reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals:
- The Administration has worked to make (PDF) certain that local public housing authorities understand Federal law regarding the discretion housing authorities have to allow ex-offenders access to public housing. Research shows that ex-offenders who do not find stable housing in the community are more likely to recidivate than those who do. Studies also have found that the majority of people released from prison intend to return to their families (PDF), families who may live in public or other subsidized housing. Clarifying these rules allowing ex-offenders to rejoin their families is therefore an important part of our overall criminal justice reform efforts.
- The Administration is also funding a demonstration project involving four jurisdictions to support the successful reunification of formerly incarcerated or chronically homeless men and women with their families, and to offer the comprehensive support needed to help them avoid reoffending while becoming both social and economic assets to their family and community.
- The Department of Justice has urged state attorneys general to review the legal collateral consequences of their State laws that may burden ex-offenders' successful reentry into society. This effort parallels the Department of Justice-led review of Federal collateral consequences as a step to reducing the unnecessary burdens placed upon reentering offenders.
We continue to strongly support the role law enforcement plays in making communities safer and taking down violent transnational criminal organizations that threaten public safety. But the Obama Administration's approach to drug policy is also guided by three facts: addiction is a disease that can be treated; people can recover; and innovative new criminal justice reforms can stop the revolving door of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest.
Benjamin B. Tucker is Deputy Director of State, Local and Tribal Affairs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy