U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' wide-ranging new crackdown on drug offenders could exacerbate one of America's most persistent public health tragedies: the heroin and opioid addiction epidemic that's been ravaging the country and killed nearly 35,000 Americans in 2015 alone. (On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control even released a report finding that new hepatitis C infection rates tripled between 2010 and 2015, in large part driven by needle-sharing among heroin addicts.)
In a two-page memo to Justice Department staff released publicly Friday, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to chase far harsher sentences against criminals. "It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," he wrote. "This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences."
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So what does pursuing the maximum possible sentence for a heroin user look like? Simply possessing any amount of heroin is punishable by a minimum $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison for a first offense; by a third conviction, that rises to a minimum of three months in jail (and potentially up to three years) and a minimum $5,000 fine. But as defense attorney firm Perlmutter & McGuiness points out, simple possession can often induce "intent to distribute" charges regardless of the drug amount involved. These charges carry much harsher penalties.
Sessions has specifically cited the dangers drugs pose to society as a rationale for stronger sentences. But existing research suggests that incarceration is an ineffective and inefficient road on the path to recovery.
For one, drug offenders have a more than 75% recidivism rate within five years of their release. Part of the reason is that it can take years to access prison rehabilitation programs if you have a longer sentence because people with shorter sentences get priority; despite recent national efforts to make opioid antidotes and addiction treatments more widely accessible, many prisons still don't have these programs in place, leaving addicts who make it out of prison far more susceptible to relapse.
There's also the issue of stigma. That's already a major barrier to people seeking treatment in the first place (as is a dearth of affordable treatment options); but it can be magnified by a conviction and incarceration, which exacerbate a vicious cycle of lackluster employment opportunities, social exclusion, and continued crime and addiction.