Obama Drug Policy: Reforming the Criminal Justice System

There is no simple, straightforward fix to America's drug problem. Successfully combating this social challenge requires an approach that blends drug treatment, smart law enforcement and alternatives to incarceration.
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Recently we had the privilege of recognizing 10 community organizers at the White House as "Champions of Change." Each of these Champions represent innovative organizations and programs working across America to reform the way we approach our nation's drug problem. Among this group of educators, physicians, social workers and people in recovery from substance use disorders, was a 25-year veteran of the Providence, R.I. police department.

As we sat in the Roosevelt Room just steps from the Oval Office, Lt. Daniel Gannon told us something many Americans might not expect from a law enforcement officer. Not every drug offender belongs in prison, he said. "Prisons are for the bad guys." For many of the others, he said, what's often needed is access to drug treatment, community services and a second chance. Lt. Gannon -- who advocates for an innovative community policing program called Drug Market Intervention -- is just one among thousands of community leaders around the country working to implement a variety of innovative, compassionate and evidenced-based drug policies at the local level.

Progressive and effective reform efforts like these could not come at a better time. More than seven million people in the United States are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Of these, more than two million are behind bars. Making matters worse, African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses. In fact, African Americans have higher proportions of inmates in state prison who are drug offenders compared to whites -- about 50 percent higher. For states and localities, the cost of managing the prison population has grown significantly. Between 1988 and 2009, annual state corrections spending jumped from $12 billion to more than $50 billion.

Just as alarming is the strong connection between crime and substance use. Data shows that over half of state and federal inmates used drugs during the month preceding the offense corresponding to their sentence. And nearly a third of state prisoners and a quarter of Federal prisoners were using drugs at the time of the offense.

The complexity and scale of our drug problem requires a nationwide effort to support smart drug policies that reduce drug use and its consequences. Since day one, the Obama Administration has been engaged in an unprecedented government-wide effort to reform our nation's drug policies and restore balance to the way we deal with the drug problem. We have pursued a variety of alternatives that abandon an unproductive enforcement-only "War on Drugs" approach to drug control and acknowledge we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem and, further, that drug addiction is a disease of the brain, not some "moral failing."

This strategy is vital because by recognizing drug addiction as a chronic and progressive disease, we can actually work to prevent and treat substance use disorders and break the cycle of drug-related crime. Simply put, it makes more sense to prevent and treat drug problems before they become chronic than simply to legalize drugs altogether or keep filling our prisons with drug offenders over and over again. Neither of these extremes are sound or humane drug policies.

Under the Obama Administration, the shift has already begun toward programs that emphasize public health over incarceration. Over the past year, the federal government spent $10.4 billion on drug prevention and treatment programs. That is more than twice the amount -- $4.3 billion -- spent on drug-related incarceration operations. And it's just the beginning:

  • Last year, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This important and long-overdue criminal justice reform dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for powder and crack cocaine that disproportionately affected minorities. More recently, we advocated for, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved, the retroactive application of these sentencing guidelines which became effective on Nov. 1.

  • The Administration ardently supports the expansion of drug courts, which place non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. Today, there are over 2,600 drug courts across the nation, diverting about 120,000 people a year into treatment instead of prison. Because of this expansion, someone in America is referred to drug treatment instead of jail through drug courts on average every four minutes.
  • The Administration is implementing the Second Chance Act, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and provides resources for common sense, evidence-based approaches to reducing crime. Specifically, it provides funding 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 reduce recidivism and improve the transition from prison and jail to communities.
  • Last year, the Department of Justice awarded $100 million to support 178 state and local reentry grants to provide a wide range of services and, in late September, awarded another $83 million to 118 new grantees.
  • The Department of Justice has urged state attorney generals to review the legal collateral consequences of their state laws being placed upon ex-offenders that may burden their successful reentry into society. (State and local governments are also taking action. During their 2011 legislative sessions, more than a dozen states tackled sentencing and corrections issues.)
  • The Administration has worked to make 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 have also found that the majority of people released from prison intend to return to their families, many of whom 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. There are only two explicit bans on occupancy: Individuals convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in public housing and registered sex offenders.
  • But more still must be done. That is why we are closely examining innovative new programs that show great promise in extending our approach to criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration. Here are two that are already showing solid results:

    • The Drug Market Intervention program. This community-based strategy has shown tremendous promise in disrupting open air drug markets by directly engaging drug dealers, their families, and communities by creating clear and predictable sanctions, offering a range of community services including drug treatment, and improving community-police relations. Jurisdictions that have implemented this strategy have experienced decreases in drug crime and other crimes without displacement of the drug market activity into other neighborhoods.
  • Hawaii's HOPE Probation program (Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement). This program reduces probation violations by drug offenders and others at high risk of recidivism. Probationers in the program receive swift, predictable, and immediate sanctions - typically resulting in several days in jail - for each detected violation, such as detected drug use or missed appointments with a probation officer. So far, evaluation results indicate the program is highly successful at reducing drug use and crime, even among difficult populations such as meth users and domestic violence offenders.
  • There is no simple, straightforward fix to America's drug problem. Successfully combating this social challenge and reducing the toll substance abuse takes on our nation requires a broad approach that blends drug treatment, smart law enforcement and effective alternatives to incarceration. With these proven public health and public safety strategies, we can break the vicious cycle of drug use and crime, thereby saving countless lives and taxpayer dollars and helping to make it possible for all Americans to achieve their full potential.

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