America incarcerates a greater percentage of its own citizens than any other country in the world. And one of the largest contributing factors to our high prison population is the way in which drug crimes are addressed in the criminal justice system.
In efforts to get tough on crime and win the war on drugs, lawmakers at the federal level (and in nearly every state) kept increasing sentences for drug offenses. Additional measures such as mandatory minimum sentence requirements took away sentencing discretion from judges and sometimes resulted in de facto life sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Did these efforts pay off? According to statistics, the answer is a clear "no."
Treating drug abuse through incarceration and other punishment has proven to be woefully ineffective and expensive. If individuals are punished without addressing the underlying problem (usually addiction), they are very likely to go back to abusing drugs and more likely to commit other crimes while on drugs.
In a recent guest column in the New York Times, the author argues that focusing on treatment instead of simple incarceration is not just more effective at reducing recidivism; it is also less expensive for society as a whole. He cites one study showing that for each dollar spent on treatment for those addicted to drugs, up to three dollars can be saved in reduced crime.
Many states have implemented drug courts, which attempt to divert offenders into treatment and avoid traditional prosecution. But these courts are not as widely used as they could be. And far too many non-violent drug addicts end up spending years behind bars, only to reoffend upon their release.
Drug abuse is a huge issue that no single person can address. It will take a broad societal consensus. In the meantime, if you have been charged with a drug offense, please seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and perhaps advocate for alternatives to traditional prosecution.