The War on Drugs has been such an abject failure — the get-tough approach having served to crowd prisons with non-violent offenders who are disproportionately African-American while having little to no discernible impact on actual narcotics use — that the country's elected leaders seemed to have reached a bipartisan consensus in recent years that it was better to focus on prevention and treatment. Prosecutors should throw the book at violent, repeat criminals, but they should not pursue long mandatory, minimum sentences for suspects who don't fit that description.
Clearly, somebody didn't get the word to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who last week took an enormous step back toward 1980s thinking with his eight-paragraph instruction to federal prosecutors to seek the most severe penalties possible against anyone in the drug trade under federal mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. That "get tough" kind of philosophy may sound reassuring — particularly given the recent uptick in drug-related homicides in cities like Baltimore — but as former Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out, it's not a "tough on crime" strategy so much as a "dumb on crime" approach.
And don't take Mr. Holder's word on it. The condemnations heard after Mr. Sessions' announcement come from a politically diverse audience ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Koch brothers. Now, how often do you see those two in agreement? Yet so clear is the failure of the mandatory minimum approach that few who are deeply involved in criminal justice and understand drug enforcement would possibly seek a return to the bad old days.
In Maryland, for example, there's been a serious and bipartisan push to reform drug laws to get more addicts in treatment and fewer in prison cells. Last year's Justice Reinvestment Act reduced the penalties for possession and repealed mandatory minimum penalties for repeat offenders. The law still gives prosecutors the discretion to inflict prison sentences as harsh as ever but wipes away mandates. The expectation is that it will eventually save the state about $10 million each year in incarceration costs, and that money can then be directed to more effective strategies like substance abuse treatment. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose administration was heavily involved in its drafting and passage, signed the measure into law one year ago this week.
In pursuing his strategy, which legal experts point out is not only a refutation of the Obama administration's approach but is a step backward from that of President George W. Bush as well, Mr. Sessions has completely ignored the nation's dire situation with racial disparity in its prisons. Since the 1980s, the number of people in U.S. prisons has grown from 500,000 to 2.3 million with African Americans and Hispanics representing 58 percent of that population. Considering most drug users are white (about 14 million whites use illegal drugs compared to 2.6 million African Americans), that suggests a serious problem with discrimination in arrests and prosecutions.
In other words, drugs are treated as a public health matter in more white and affluent America but as evidence of serious crime in urban black America. Add to that the lack of economic opportunities in places like Baltimore's west side, and get-tough enforcement serves only to harden criminal activities and permanently destroy whole families and communities. The profit is enormous, the competition is vicious, and the homicides are up because the stakes are so high. If the market in heroin or crack collapsed tomorrow, does anyone seriously believe that drug dealers would still be killing each other in the streets?
But leaving the injustices perpetuated by the drug war aside, even many political conservatives have rallied around the notion that the country should pursue effective drug-fighting strategies. Mandatory minimum sentences simply don't fit that description. Why not leave it up to prosecutors to decide so they might use the threat of a harsh sentence to negotiate a plea bargain and take down an entire drug gang instead of one offender? Sadly, the only logical reason for Mr. Sessions to write his memo is for the same reason mandatory minimum sentences were put on the books in the first place — to sound tough and absolute in the way that "war on drugs" sounds serious, too. Too bad its effect is exactly the opposite, a brainless, cookie cutter approach that's been proven ineffective and will only compound the problem of drug abuse and overdoses as well as drug-related crime and overcrowded prisons.