Majority of Americans—Including Republicans—Want Treatment Instead of Prison for Drug Crime

It seems unfair to lock up people struggling with addiction instead of giving them a shot at real rehabilitation.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

For more than 16 years, Paul Carter has languished in a New Orleans prison, sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of possessing an amount of powdered heroin so small it couldn’t be weighed.

The longtime addict, who hails from a poor neighborhood and whose crime was a third-strike nonviolent offense, never received substance abuse treatment until he was sentenced to live out the rest of his days in prison. “It feels like the life within you is taken away,” he has said.

The so-called war on drugs has included offenders such as Carter for decades, with about 79 percent of the 3,278 inmates currently serving life without parole in federal prisons sentenced to die there for nonviolent drug crimes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

When it comes to public opinion, however, the times they are a-changin'. About 67 percent of Americans say the government should focus more on providing treatment for users of illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, instead of incarcerating them, according to drug policy report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center finds that surveyed 1,821 adults in February. 

Even a slim majority of the Republicans polled, 51 percent, believe the government should concentrate more on treatment than on prosecution of drug users.

“What this means is that Americans are really ready to substantially reduce the role of the criminal justice system in dealing with drug policy,” said Jag Davies, publications manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national reform organization. “Hopefully this report will help reinforce that smart elected officials and politicians should work on this issue because it has such broad bipartisan support. Substance abuse should be treated through the health care system instead of by law enforcement professionals.”

Nearly two out of three people surveyed—63 percent—say it is a positive development that some states have moved away from mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In 2001 Americans were evenly divided on the issue. 

“These findings are completely consistent with recent polling we commissioned in California showing overwhelming public support—70 percent throughout the state—for reducing penalties for drug possession and for rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes,” said Allen Hopper, ACLU of Northern California’s criminal justice and drug policy director. “The public is fed up with the wasteful and ineffective war-on-drugs mentality. It’s time for our political leaders to step up, or they’ll be looking for new jobs.”

Politicians have done just that, pushing for reform. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last month endorsed a United States Sentencing Commission proposal introduced in January that would change federal guidelines to reduce the average sentence for drug dealers by close to one year. The Smarter Sentencing Act, pending in the Senate and whose sponsors include Democratic Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin and Republicans Rand Paul and Mike Lee, calls for cutting mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, some by about half.

Public support for the legalization of marijuana use is also on the rise.

Already 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have legalized it for recreational use. The Pew report finds that 75 percent of the public think the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legal across the country, and 76 percent think those convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should not have to serve jail time. The public sees marijuana as less harmful than alcohol: 69 percent of those questioned view booze as worse for people’s health, while 15 percent see marijuana as more detrimental, according to the report.

“The next step is to change law enforcement practices to stop arresting people for using,” said Davies. “The rhetoric has changed a lot, but we still have a long way to go.”

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