This article looks at how drug crime sentences are shifting away from incarceration and towards treatment.
Incarceration for non-violent crimes is not only expensive, it is also highly ineffective at reducing recidivism. From the 1980s on, efforts at reducing crime have largely focused on a “tough on crime” approach that saw non-violent offenders imprisoned for years on end. In recent years, however, states have been moving away from mass incarceration and towards treatment and rehabilitation. In Utah, as the Salt Lake Tribune reports, the changes brought about last year by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative are dramatically changing the way drug possession and other non-violent crimes are prosecuted.
The need for reform
The Utah state prison population is growing, having gone up 18 percent between 2004 and 2013. Currently there are about 6,700 inmates in Utah state prisons. Such a large prison population is expensive for taxpayers to maintain. Furthermore, many of those who are in prison are there for low-level and non-violent drug crimes, such as drug possession. Many critics of mass incarceration argue that prison, by denying offenders opportunities to receive treatment and reintegrate with society, does little to solve the substance abuse problems that are at the root of many drug offenses.
Those criticisms were taken up by proponents of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which was passed last year by Utah state lawmakers. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative had three main goals: reduce recidivism rates, improve public safety, and decrease spending on incarceration. On that final point, the initiative is expected to save the state over $500 million over the next 20 years since, if the reforms work, fewer prisoners will need to be incarcerated.
What are the reforms?
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative includes a wide array of reforms that are designed to make sentencing more fair for non-violent offenders, especially those convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Under the initiative, first- and second-degree felony drug possession offenses were downgraded to misdemeanors while 241 misdemeanors were downgraded to infractions. Automatic sentence increases were also limited to crimes involving sale and distribution of drugs, instead of just possession, and penalties for distributing drugs near schools and churches were also adjusted.
The initiative also calls for greater investment in treatment and rehabilitation programs for drug offenders. As the Deseret News reports, the success of the initiative may depend on whether or not offenders have access to substance abuse treatment programs. The chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, for example, recently claimed that without greater investment in treatment programs, many of the benefits of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative may be lost because offenders with substance abuse problems will not have access to the help they need in order to reintegrate into society.
While a cultural shift is underway in how drug offenses are prosecuted – with courts increasingly favoring treatment over incarceration – it is important to realize that punishments for many drug crimes are still harsh. Anybody charged with a drug offense should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced and respected attorney can help defendants understand both their rights and how they should respond to the charges against them.