The war on drugs is over!
How many times over the past 25 years have I wished I could say that, just to know how it would feel to have one of America’s most tragic experiments with mass criminalization truly end. It hasn’t ended, of course. Not yet. But Oregon recently got an inspiring example of how far we have come toward addressing harmful drug use for what it is: a health and social challenge best dealt with outside of a jail cell.
Just a month ago, on Sept. 26, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement calling on legislators to end felony penalties for drug possession. This is what they said:
“Oregon Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police recognize that every community and most of our citizens are touched in one way or another by the damaging impacts of drug addiction. We understand that it ruins lives, breaks hearts, burdens families and robs our communities of individuals with potential. Too often, individuals with addiction issues find their way to the doorstep of the criminal justice system when they are arrested for possession of a controlled substance. The penalty is often a felony drug conviction where the person may receive a jail sentence, is placed on probation and receive limited treatment services. Unfortunately, felony convictions in these cases also include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”
This was the very first paragraph of their public declaration. I will confess that it made me tear up. I’ve worked in legal services for the poor, for civil liberties organizations and with racial justice partners for decades to end the abuse of people already suffering more than many of us could ever imagine. And here, in a single humane and honest paragraph, the men and women who lead Oregon’s law enforcement establishment explain, more powerfully than I ever have, the devastation caused by the drug war and why it needs to end.
A few days later, I almost teared up again when one member of the Oregon District Attorneys Association came out against the sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ proposal to reduce drug possession felonies to misdemeanors. Sadly, I half-expected it. Even today, when we know so much more about the nature of addiction and the long-term impact of traumatic experience, including the trauma of arrest and incarceration, some prosecutors’ instincts are to respond to proposals for reform with a parade of horribles. You’ve heard them all before – the frightening claims about what will happen if we treat people with addictions as members of our community who need help, not as criminals. Usually, these stories are heavy on innuendo and light on reliable facts or data. They sometimes convey the very real suffering faced by individual drug users, their families and communities, but then they make unsupported claims about how a criminal conviction will make things better.
In my more uncharitable moods, I suspect these prosecutors of making a cynical attempt to preserve their extraordinary power – the power to leverage plea deals, the power to prop up “zero tolerance” policies that bear no relation to how people experience addiction, the power that comes with being able to say “I’ve been tough on criminals” the next time they are up for re-election. But maybe it comes from not having to consider what happens after they have chalked up yet another conviction. Police and sheriffs don’t have that luxury. In their daily work, they see what happens to already vulnerable people who are saddled with lifelong criminal records.
FURTHER READING: The prosecutor: the most powerful person in the room
But there is light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel created by the war on drugs. Some top prosecutors are imagining new ways in which they can be part of a solution that addresses addiction as a health issue and people who use drugs as deserving of help, not jail or prison. Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau explained his support for alternatives to incarceration stating, “I’m tired of building felony resumes. We’re not tackling the root of the behavior.”
In Multnomah County, where Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is set to begin diverting drug users from the criminal justice system in early 2017, District Attorney Rod Underhill has asked, “Should we be looking at moving to a health/harm-reduction model and less at a punishment model? The answer is yes.”
These Oregon sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys are part of a national movement that has its epicenter here in the Pacific Northwest. A three-hour drive north, in Seattle, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg has become a leader of this new community-centered approach to public safety. Satterberg recently wrote:
“Drug addiction is a serious problem in Seattle, as in most urban centers, and our history of policing reflected an unequal impact on communities of color. In 2011, community leaders developed an alternative to arrest for minor drug crimes, prostitution and property crimes linked to addiction. This new approach, called LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), gives police the option of handing over an arrested person to a case manager instead of a jailer. ... Next up is a program to identify people who are frequently and repeatedly booked into jail for minor offenses. Social workers will proactively offer these ‘familiar faces’ services to prevent their next arrests. This program will save lives and taxpayer dollars.”
This approach – this attitude – makes public safety its central concern. It prioritizes helping people to reclaim control of their own lives, both from drug use and the criminal justice system, as an essential element of healthy and safe communities.
FURTHER READING: Seattle took the LEAD; Oregon should follow (commentary)
Something is happening in this country – something that my organization, Partnership for Safety and Justice, has been working toward since it was founded by a small group of visionaries in 1999. We know there will be setbacks. But when Oregon’s governor is elected on Nov. 8, she or he and the Oregon Legislature should get solidly behind the sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ proposal. It is long past time for the drug war and the harm it causes to end. We at PSJ are ready to work with the police, sheriffs, prosecutors and our community partners to advance a new vision for public safety and justice in Oregon and across the nation.
Andy Ko is the executive director at Partnership for Safety and Justice, a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization advancing public safety solutions that ensure justice, equity, accountability and healing to achieve safe and strong communities.