Pubdate: Mon, 26 Oct 2015
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Ann McFeatters, Tribune News Service


Groups Work to End Harsh Sentences for Addicted, Mentally Ill and
Non-Violent Offenders

WASHINGTON - You would have been hard-pressed to find a police chief
in his office in the past few days.

Dozens of them were in Washington, 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

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 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 Barack 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 upwards 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
non-violent 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 mental health 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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom