Pubdate: Sun, 25 Oct 2015
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Ann McFeatters, Tribune News Service


You would have been hardpressed to find a police chief in his office 
in the last few days.

Dozens of them were in Washington, D.C., lobbying to get more people 
out of prison. They want to end the mandatory jail terms judges are 
forced to bestow for what are seen less as criminal acts than cries 
of desperation.

America's prisons are overflowing. The United States has more people 
in jail than any other country, including some of the harshest, most 
backward nations. Democratic and Republican presidential candidates 
may not agree on much, but they accept one statistic: With less than 
5 percent of the world's population, the United States holds about 25 
percent of the world's prisoners. For every 100,000 Americans, 716 
are jailed - a far, far higher rate than anyplace else.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 80 percent of those in 
prison or on probation or parole have addiction problems with alcohol 
or drugs, often as a result of overprescribed prescriptions for 
painkillers. When the prescriptions run out, the patient seeks an 
alternative, often cheap heroin.

Shockingly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention, more people die from drug overdoses than motor-vehicle 
accidents - more than 100 every day. It is difficult to find a family 
in America - mine included - that has not been adversely affected by 
illicit drugs. GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina connected 
with many when she revealed her stepdaughter died from a drug overdose.

Drug addiction "doesn't discriminate," said President Obama. "It 
touches everybody."

Obama just put out a memorandum to heads of executive offices and 
agencies spelling out the problem: He said the epidemic of 
prescription pain medication and heroin deaths is devastating 
families and shattering communities across the country.

The government said 259 million pain prescriptions were given out in 
2012. Prescription drugs, especially for pain, have been increasingly 
implicated in drug-overdose deaths, such cases quadrupling between 
1999 and 2013. The White House says addiction to prescription pain 
medication is the strongest risk factor for heroin addiction.

As drug use soared, an alarmed Congress and worried state 
legislatures began mandating heavy sentences for drug addicts as well 
as drug dealers and criminal traffickers. The United States spends 
upward of $75 billion on correctional procedures and facilities every 
year. We don't really know the true figure.

Many police chiefs and sheriffs have banded with federal, state and 
local prosecutors in the year-old Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce 
Crime and Incarceration. The group argues it's time to stop imposing 
automatic harsh sentences for the addicted, the mentally ill and 
nonviolent offenders, such as shoplifters. For one thing, they argue 
that drug addicts, once freed and untreated, often end up out on the 
streets seeking to use again.

"With momentum for criminal justice reform accelerating, we want to 
leave no doubt where the law enforcement community stands: We need 
less incarceration, not more, to keep all Americans safe," the group 
said in a new report.

The law enforcers want a number of nonviolent felonies reclassified 
as misdemeanors and say they are working to eliminate mandatory 
minimum sentences to give judges more latitude in deciding who goes 
to prison and for how long.

Obama announced in West Virginia, the state with the nation's highest 
rate of fatal drug overdoses, that he is mandating more training for 
federal doctors in prescribing drugs and requiring federal 
health-insurance plans to provide treatment for addiction.

He wants to expand use of federally approved treatment drugs, such as 
buprenorphine, buprenorphine-naloxone combination products, methadone 
and naltrexone in combination with counseling, other behavioral 
therapies and patient monitoring to help addicts recover. He asked 
for specific federal action plans in three months.

It's a start. And law enforcement officials demanding less 
incarceration is the right move. But drug and mentalhealth treatments 
are costly and hard to get, especially in an era of severe cuts in 
domestic spending. Also, there is an unending demand from the public 
and from pharmaceutical companies for the federal government to 
approve ever more heavy-duty, potentially addicting painkillers.

Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom