A bizarrely sensible change to US drug policy appears to have been made this week – based on a model trialled in Texas. In what seems to me to be a primarily fiscal move spun into a moral one by the Obama administration, the ideas from the conservative Bible Belt state are being rolled out to the rest of the country. Described as ‘a major shift in criminal justice policy’ by The New York Times, the changes are being implemented without the agreement of Congress, in order to bypass Republican opposition. Instead of changing legislation, alterations are being made to criminal justice directives, or the guidelines which inform federal prosecutors. The changes will stop the amount of the drug possessed from being declared in court, to avoid minimum sentencing requirements being triggered, and instead allow shorter sentencing or community orders where there is no violence, no sales to minors, no significant criminal history, and no links to organised crime and gangs.
This, in principle, seems like a positive move. However, when we consider the model originated in Texas, where millions of dollars were saved by avoiding building new prisons, and potential inmates were diverted into treatment and work programmes, we can be fairly confident the reasoning is financial rather than compassionate. It remains open to prosecutors’ discretion, which may well not reduce the race gap in prison populations (80% of those incarcerated for drug-related crime are black, which equates to one in three, yes that’s ONE IN THREE, young black males), and could in fact increase the racial discrepancy should prosecutors use their discretion biasedly. As the decriminalisation movement in America point out, this “tepid new directive.. smacks of… good spin and no spine”.
But Attorney General, Eric Holder, who unveiled the new plans this week to The Washington Post, offered some reassurance of the administration’s good intentions and understanding, saying “A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities… many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them”.
Only time will tell whether this will have the intended impact. But whatever the motive for the changes, the outcome will be fewer non-violent drug users incarcerated, the release of older inmates who were imprisoned for what would now be considered more minor drug offences, and hopefully a social shift in the perceived criminality and dangerousness of drug users in the US. A vast reduction the criminal justice budget is another good outcome – especially for a country which apparently now houses 25% of the world’s prisoners – and if the move is supported with an increased access to work and housing for these people, they should soon be contributing positively to tax figures instead of eating away at the other end.