Longer sentences won’t stop the opioid epidemic

Longer sentences won’t stop the opioid epidemic
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More than 60,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2016 — most of them due to opioids like fentanyl — and no region in America has escaped this tragedy. The numbers now show that the epidemic has struck both rural and urban parts of this country.

This is first and foremost a public health crisis. But it’s also a major challenge for law enforcement and one that calls for fresh solutions. As we confront this surge in deaths, we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of past drug epidemics.

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I became cop because I care about the wellbeing of my community and I spent decades on the front lines of America’s fight against serious and violent crime. But along the way, I also became a foot soldier in the failed War on Drugs. And contrary to what you hear on Capitol Hill, history has taught us that we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of this problem.  

 

As stewards of public safety, police officers should be allowed to spend their time wisely: arresting the worst of the worst in terms of the drug problem and making a real dent in the overall drug market. In reality, though, all too often current policy compels us to arrest and incarcerate drug users — or people who sell drugs to feed their addiction — while the real perpetrators escape justice. I found that this “strategy” of arresting low-level, non-violent sellers and users can even make the problem worse. Drug users would typically receive a lengthy prison sentence, emerge from prison unable to find a job and shunned by their communities, causing the cycle of addiction and incarceration  to repeat.

As a police chief, it became evident to me that treatment, not incarceration, is often the more effective response when it comes to drugs. And, I am not the only high-ranking police officer to feel that our incarceration-only approach to drugs has failed. I, along with over 200 law enforcement officials of  Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, have pushed for reforms to our criminal justice system, including reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenses, while continuing to pursue those that fuel our drug trade. We know from experience that this approach promotes public safety above all else.   

Despite our advocacy, calls for a “tough on crime” approach to the overdose epidemic have become louder and louder. Fentanyl — an opioid that is often added to heroin and is linked to a spike in overdose deaths nationwide — appears to be the catalyst for calls for harsher penalties. Last month, President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE called for the death penalty for those who sell fentanyl. Our nation’s Senators, Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerSeven most vulnerable governors facing reelection in 2022 Nevada becomes early Senate battleground Nevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital MORE (R-Nev.), Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Senate's antitrust bill would raise consumer prices and lower our competitiveness Sinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform MORE (R-Ark), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators introduce bill aimed at protecting Ukrainian civilians Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE (R-S.C.), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyLouisiana Democrat running for US Senate smokes marijuana in campaign ad MORE (R-La.), Bill CassidyBill CassidyBipartisan lawmakers announce climate adaptation bill ​​Democrats make voting rights push ahead of Senate consideration Sunday shows - Voting rights legislation dominates MORE M.D. (R-La.) and Ben SasseBen SasseBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Sinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform Democrats outraged after Manchin opposes Biden spending bill MORE (R-Neb.), have introduced a bill that would increase sentences and penalties for fentanyl and Senator Graham hinted that he is open to including the death penalty in his bill. This past Wednesday found lawmakers hearing testimony from medical experts, academics and law enforcement, on the bill.

What this bill proposes is a mistake. Fentanyl is a deadly drug and we must pursue those responsible for its manufacture and distribution in our country. But when we expanded penalties in the 1980s, it did nothing to stem the crack epidemic. Instead, we locked up thousands of people for low-level sale and use, at great financial and human cost, especially to communities of color. There is no reason to think harsher penalties for fentanyl would yield a different result and increasing penalties is unlikely to reduce the spread of fentanyl or reduce deaths.

We need to heed the lessons of the War on Drugs and come up with new, innovative approaches. In my over 30 years in law enforcement, I learned that drugs like fentanyl call for a response that combines law enforcement and public health. That means we need more naloxone in the hands of first responders to reverse overdoses and save lives. And rather than funding for prison beds for drug users, we should increase funding for treatment — a much more effective (and less expensive) way of reducing drug use. Improving data collection must also be a part of this law enforcement-public health partnership: fentanyl is hitting our states at an increasing rate and we need the most accurate information possible to stop its use from spreading.

To an outsider, the idea of “getting tough” on drugs may seem satisfying. But as police officers, we owe the public the truth — and the truth is that there are better ways to confront drugs. The overdose crisis is a tragedy of epic proportions and demands an urgent and robust response based on what we know works. Law enforcement and public health officials should join forces to pursue fresh approaches to the epidemic and avoid the mistakes of the past.

Ronal Serpas is a former Police Superintendent of New Orleans, Louisiana and former Police Chief of Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the founding chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration.