Our state, as well as our nation as a whole, faces unprecedented challenges related to criminal justice and public health. Our country’s incarceration rate has reached a distressing level that is unmatched by any other industrialized country. As too many Granite Staters know, we are also experiencing alarming and historic rates of opiate addiction and overdose. In addressing these two problems we must consider the lessons that can be drawn from the policy mistakes of the past.
The simple fact is that our nation sends too many people to prison and keeps them there for too long. In response to the rise of crack cocaine in the 1980s and ’90s, “tough on crime” initiatives were instituted in an attempt to use harsh mandatory minimums to deter drug distribution and possession. The penalties were based almost solely on drug weight, giving judges little ability to assess the actual culpability of a defendant. These laws calibrated sentences so that the penalty for one gram of crack equaled the sentence for one hundred grams of powdered cocaine, producing racially-biased outcomes in our criminal justice system.
We are still feeling the negative effects of these short-sighted policies. Since 1978, the nation’s prison population has risen by 408 percent. Today, almost one in 100 Americans is held in a jail or prison. All American taxpayers bear the related financial burdens — up to one-third of the Department of Justice’s $27 billion budget will be used to fund the Bureau of Prisons this year.
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the U.S. Senate has introduced legislation that will take meaningful steps toward reforming our broken sentencing and criminal justice systems. The proposed bill – The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – would reduce several mandatory minimums and target their application at only the most serious defendants, expand the sentencing discretion of judges in certain instances, and correct some of the injustices created by the draconian sentencing policies of the past by making some of these reforms retroactive.
This legislation is an acknowledgment that we cannot arrest our way out of the problems associated with drug use. The same holds true for the recent heroin crisis which has claimed the lives of a record number of our friends and neighbors in Manchester and across the state this year. Our own junior Sen. Kelly Ayotte is to be commended for her work on this issue, recently calling the situation “a public health crisis.” Despite this pronouncement, she has introduced legislation that would dramatically increase the criminal penalties for individuals who distribute heroin laced with fentanyl (a powerful opiate). Senator Ayotte should know that increasing sentences will not decrease New Hampshire’s heroin problem; the focus must be on public health. Ayotte’s fentanyl proposal comes at a time when even some of the most conservative members on the Senate Judiciary Committee – many of whom are former Attorneys General and prosecutors, like Republicans John Cornyn and Mike Lee – have accepted that these types of policies simply do not work
We need to take seriously the public health aspect of opiate addiction and overdose. Instead of focusing on filling more jail cells, we should commit to making more health resources available to those who need them. At the end of the day, drug addiction is solely a medical issue. I have been proud to work with my legislative colleagues here in New Hampshire to tackle these issues in a rational, compassionate way, and urge our representatives in Congress to do the same.
Hillsborough District 12
About the author: Amanda Bouldin is a single mother living in Manchester. She serves at Civic Action Director on the board of the NH Liberty Alliance and in 2011 founded Shire Sharing, a nonprofit that feeds the needy during Thanksgiving, to honor her late father. She was elected in 2014 as a state rep from Manchester’s Ward 5.
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