While there is nothing new about drugs in our society, a new approach is being offered by the Obama Administration to help break the cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and re-arrest. On November 21, President Obama announced his first commutation—that of Eugenia Marie Jennings who was convicted in 2001 of distributing cocaine and sentenced to 22 years. She will be released next month but her 8 year period of probation remains intact. Jennings’ commutation is consistent with the Obama Administration’s overall drug policy.
Recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to drug policies, the Obama Administration’s policies reflect diverse solutions and fairness in its approach. These include increasing drug courts, passing of the Fair Sentencing Act and retroactivity of the Act and the Second Chance Act. The Administration supports the expansion of additional drug courts for nonviolent offenders. Drug courts divert 120,000 people into treatment versus jail. While drug courts have been around for 20 years, an expansion is necessary to aggressively tackle the problem.
After passage of the Fair Sentence Act last year, reducing the cocaine disparity from 100-1, the Obama Administration successfully advocated for the retroactive application of the new sentencing guidelines, which became effective on November 1st. The Administration is implementing the Second Chance Act which provides funding for programs that improve coordination of reentry services and policies including grants, reentry courts, family-centered programs, substance abuse treatment, employment, mentoring and other services needed to improve transition from prison and jail to communities and reduce recidivism.
Currently, almost 7 million adults are under supervision of state and federal criminal justice systems. Two million are incarcerated and the remaining 5 million are under parole or probation. The costs of managing prison populations have grown significantly. From 1988 to 2009, state corrections costs have increased from 12 billion to over 50 billion. Overall costs related to drug use including health costs, incarceration and lost productivity total $193 billion. Yet, despite these staggering costs, many offenders are not able to remain drug free and crime free upon re-entry into society. The Obama Administration has recognized that we cannot arrest and then re-arrest our way out of our drug problem in America. We cannot continue to do the same things the same way and expect to get different results.
It is well known that treatment works and is a less expensive alternative to incarceration, according to Redonna K. Chandler, Ph. D., Chief of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Services Research Branch. Chandler stated at a briefing on Monday that in Delaware, a study showed 3 years out, 70% of those who received comprehensive drug treatment remained arrest free.
Under the leadership of Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and President Obama’s top drug policy advisor, the Administration’s approach has been to break the cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and re-arrest, plus looking to keep the public safe while balancing public health. Increased cases of HIV and AIDS are often the byproduct of illicit drug use. Since 2004, 50% of all new cases of AIDS were African Americans, despite being only 12% of the US population. And in the 25-44 age group, AIDS is the leading cause of death.
In the past 2 ½ years, the Obama Administration has taken unprecedented actions to break the cycle of drug use, incarceration and re-arrest. This last fiscal year, the Obama Administration spent $10.4 billion on drug prevention and treatment programs compared to $9.2 billion on domestic drug enforcement. And while some may argue we cannot afford the expense of these new programs; in reality, we cannot afford the staggering costs of incarceration and the overall costs that drugs have on our society, where treatment and other more viable options exist.