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Americans have second thoughts on the decades old war on drugs


In the past 30 years, the federal prison population has increased significantly due, in large part, to mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

NBC News recently reported that the federal prison population has declined for the first time in 34 years. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at a criminal justice conference, attributed the decline to the Justice Department's attempts to become "less dependent on incarceration" as the means of reducing crime. Since the 1980's, the federal prison population-now totaling 215,000-has skyrocketed due largely to federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. Some are viewing the decline in inmate population as a possible turning point in the decades-old war on drugs which has proven ineffective in addressing America's drug addiction problem.

Public opinion has shifted away from believing that the best answer to drug crimes is to sentence drug offenders-many of them non-violent drug offenders who are addicts-to lengthy prison terms. Citing a Pew Research Center poll, Yahoo News reports that 67 percent of Americans believe that the government should emphasize treatment for users of drugs such as heroin and cocaine over simply incarcerating them. A spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance believes that this poll reflects the growing view that America's substance abuse problem should be handled "though the health care system instead of by law enforcement professionals."

Substance abuse, according to an article in Psychology Today, is the only mental health condition whose main feature-the possession of drugs-is a crime. While the commendable goal of the war on drugs is to discourage drug use and get control of the nation's drug problem, the war has largely been fought by criminalizing possession of drugs even for non-violent offenders. Unfortunately, the vast majority of prisoners do not receive proper treatment for their drug dependency while incarcerated.

In addition, there is little indication that imprisoning non-violent drug offenders reduces crime. The Sentencing Project has examined studies showing that simply shipping people off to prison has little relationship to ending crime and making society safer. New Jersey, for example, dramatically lowered its prison population between 1999 and 2012. The decarceration in New Jersey was due, in part, to reforms of the state's drug laws. While New Jersey's prison population declined, violent crimes and property crimes actually decreased at a rate greater than the national average.

The human dimension

An article published in the New York Times sets forth some of the consequences resulting from the incarceration of non-violent drug crime offenders. Families suffer financially if the family breadwinner is incarcerated for a lengthy period of time due to his or her lost wages. Children with an incarcerated parent will likely suffer socially and academically after a parent is jailed. The spouses of prisoners are prone to depression and other mental and physical problems. Once released from prison, ex-drug crime offenders often have problems finding employment due to employers' reluctance to hire anyone with a record. The failure to obtain gainful employment results in trapping the entire family in a cycle of debt and poverty.

Seek legal help

Being charged with drug crimes under either federal law or New Jersey law is a serious matter. If you have been charged with a drug crime, you should consult with a New Jersey attorney experienced in handling drug crime cases. There may be defenses to the drug charges which could allow the charges to be dismissed. An attorney will be glad to sit down with you to review the evidence and advise you as to your best options for dealing with the charges.

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