The Office of National Drug Control Policy hosted a media briefing on Nov. 20, to highlight the Obama Administration’s unprecedented approaches to addressing drug addiction.

Ben Tucker, deputy director for State, Local, and Tribal Affairs set the tone by giving stats about how costly criminalizing drug use has been.

“The Department of Justice released new data showing that drug use cost our society about $193 billion a year. Fifty six billion of those dollars can be traced directly back to costs associated solely with the criminal justice system,” said Tucker.

The deputy pointed out that contributing to this immense cost are the more than seven million people in the United States who are under the supervision of the criminal justice system with more than two million behind bars.

For states and localities across the country, the costs of managing these populations have grown significantly. Between 1988 and 2009, state corrections spending increased from $12 billion to more than $50 billion per year.

“African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses. These two groups have consistently higher proportions of inmates in state prison who are drug offenders compared to Whites – about 50 percent higher among these minorities compared to Whites,” said Tucker.

“As our nation works to recover from the greatest recession we’ve had, we must do everything we can to lessen the harm that drug offenses and drug use have on the health, safety, and economic potential of our nation and our fellow citizens.”

Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy outlined unprecedented actions being undertaken by the Obama Administration to address this challenge by breaking the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration and re-arrest.

The Obama Administration’s approach to criminal justice drug policy is guided by three facts; that addiction is a disease that can be treated; people can recover and new interventions are needed to appropriately address substance abuse and drug-related crime.

“We cannot arrest our way out of our nation’s drug problem and while new strategies are being implemented there is more to do,” said Kerlikowske.

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. 

August, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law.  This important and long-overdue criminal justice reform dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine, which disproportionately affected minorities.

The administration is implementing the Second Chance Act, which provides funding for programs that improve coordination of reentry services and policies at the state, tribal, and local levels, including demonstration grants, reentry courts, family-centered programs, substance abuse treatment, employment, mentoring and other services.
Expansion of drug courts, which place non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. 

Last year, the Department of Justice awarded $100 million to support 178 state and local reentry grants to provide a wide range of services and in late September awarded another $83 million to 118 new grantees. 

Encouragement to housing authorities nationally to lease to offenders returning to the community and to ensure that they understand that they have the discretion to lease to all but two specific classes of felon.

The Attorney General issued a letter to state attorneys general to urge them to review the legal collateral consequences of their state laws being placed upon ex-offenders that may burden their successful reentry into society. 

“I also encourage states to take our lead in support the funding of effective alternatives to incarceration. By implementing a range of innovative, yet proven public health and public safety interventions, we can save taxpayer dollars and improve outcomes and break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration,” said Kerlikowske.

Redonna Chandler, chief of services research branch of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, closed by stating that harsh punishments including lengthy incarcerations, boot camps, and intense supervision alone do not alleviate addiction. “Effective treatment helps the offender change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with regard to both drug use and criminality,” Chandler said.

She suggested numerous approaches including cognitive behavioral therapy where participants learn positive social and coping skills; contingency management approaches help break down long-term treatment goals into smaller steps and motivational enhancement interventions and medications.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO