A new national survey released today by the Pew Research Center reveals that a broad majority of Americans are ready to significantly reduce the role of the criminal justice system in dealing with people who use drugs.
Among the key findings of the report:
The report comes at a pivotal moment. From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there’s now a bipartisan consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have made a series of moves over the past year indicating that they are serious about reducing mass incarceration and fixing the crimi¬nal justice system. And in an otherwise-bitterly-divided Congress, legislators from both sides of the aisle are pushing to reform mandatory minimum drug laws.
Yet the drug war remains entrenched in a complex web of state, local and federal policies. More than 1.5 million people are arrested in the U.S. every year for a drug law violation. The vast majority – more than 80 percent – are arrested for possession only. Roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars on any given night for a drug law violation, including more than 55,000 people in state prisons for simple drug possession.
It’s nice to see, as the Pew poll indicated, that Americans overwhelmingly support treatment-instead-of-incarceration. But it’s important to recognize that there has been overwhelming support for treatment-instead-of-incarceration for well over a decade now – and that we’ve reached the point where the public needs to be better educated about the benefits of providing treatment outside the criminal justice system rather than within and through it. It would be a shame if this latest poll result were used to promote drug courts and other coercive, abstinence-only programs rather than meaningful treatment in the community.
Given that the vast majority of Americans don’t think people should be prosecuted for drug possession, it’s time to ask the question: Why is the U.S. still arresting more than a million people every year for nothing more than drug possession?
There is simply no good basis in science, health or ethics for bringing someone into the criminal justice system solely for drug possession.
Getting arrested for drug possession is no small matter. It creates a permanent criminal record, easily available to banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing and other government agencies, that can haunt a person for life. That this happens to more than a million Americans every year is absurd.
Hopefully these new poll results will help accelerate the movement toward ending the criminalization of drug use and possession. That certainly would make an enormous difference in millions of lives.
Jag Davies is the publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.