Direct all media inquiries, contact the Zac Roy (Anat Gerstein, Inc.) at email@example.com or by calling 347.361.9072.
For more information about our monthly television program, Both Sides of the Bars, click here.
It is abundantly clear that the criminal legal system’s traditional approach to drug cases has failed. The good news is that Americans are increasingly accepting what public health experts have been saying for decades: Substance use disorder is a health issue and should not be treated as a crime. Yet nearly half a million people in America are incarcerated for drug offenses.
Meanwhile, an estimated 65% of the U.S. prison population has an active substance use disorder. Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate people, but high recidivism rates show the extent of their failure. Within three years of their release, two out of three people are arrested again and more than half are reincarcerated.
The results are predictable. Tens of thousands of lives are stuck in cycles of addiction and incarceration, and communities are less safe. The cost, both moral and economic, is immense. Government officials, advocates and public health experts all have roles to play in creating a better system, but there is one group that can make the most immediate impact: the more than 2,400 elected prosecutors across the country.
Prosecutors now have more tools at their disposal than ever before to help people rebuild their lives. With drug cases, one of the most important things they can do is examine the accused person’s life circumstances holistically and determine whether alternatives to incarceration will lead to a better outcome. The truth is that a person’s behavior around drugs is usually the result of their traumatic environment. Prison exacerbates trauma. Instead, people need uplifting services like treatment, counseling and job training.
As someone who spent 16 years in prison for a drug-related crime, this is personal. I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s amid inequities created by structural racism. Without opportunities for a better future, many of my peers used drugs to cope or sold drugs, as I did, to access the material wealth we saw on television. Ultimately, that path led me to a situation that turned fatal for one of the participants, for which I will always be deeply remorseful.
I now realize that a person is not the sum of their crime or substance use. That’s why it is critical for prosecutors in drug cases to engage with the accused person’s family members, social workers and alternatives-to-incarceration programs. This will provide a more comprehensive picture and enable prosecutors to offer services that rehabilitate rather than punish.
This is one of many recommendations in ”A New Approach: A Prosecutors Guide to Advancing a Public Health Response to Drug Use,” a new toolkit produced by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College and global health organization Vital Strategies. The guide was informed by insights from a working group I participated in with formerly incarcerated people, prosecutors, defense attorneys, advocates, and public health experts.
Our group also advises prosecutors to invite medical professionals and directly impacted individuals to educate their staffs on the history of U.S. drug laws, the physical effects of substance-use disorder, what leads people to use and sell drugs, and the medical treatment options available.
We encourage prosecutors to help change the narrative around drugs. They should emphasize the importance of pre-arrest programs and harm reduction resources and use their political influence to support legislation that adopts a public health approach to drug policy.
Additionally, we recommend prosecutors prioritize public health when using their discretion. They can decline to prosecute cases in which community safety is not at risk, such as simple drug possession. They can also limit reliance on cash bail, which can unnecessarily expose people to jail conditions that imperil their health. Here in New York City, the increase in population on Rikers Island we have witnessed this year stems, in part, from prosecutors’ old, failing approach.
As our toolkit demonstrates, there is a better way forward, with prosecutors taking leadership roles in advancing a drug policy based on harm reduction, public health, and racial justice.