Sentencing Won’t Fix Heroin Woes

Post Date: April 16, 2014

(Shreveport Times Column by Greg Newburn) — In response to a rash of fatal heroin overdoses, the Louisiana House of Representatives recently passed HB 332, which would double the mandatory minimum sentence for heroin distribution, from five years to 10, and create a new mandatory minimum sentence of two years for heroin possession. The problem to which lawmakers are responding is both dangerous and undeniable, but new mandatory minimums are not the solution.

There’s little question that the rise of prescription pill abuse, followed by a nationwide crackdown on prescription pill access, is the driver behind increased heroin use — and the resulting overdose deaths. That’s certainly been the case for a Gulf Coast neighbor: Despite Florida’s harsh mandatory minimums for heroin possession and distribution, deaths caused by heroin increased 89.5 percent in 2012, just one year after Florida began cracking down on “pill mills.” The same seems to now be true in Louisiana. As Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand recently said, “It’s easier to buy heroin on the street than it is to buy Oxycontin.” 

The desire to reduce heroin abuse and overdose deaths is laudable, but decades of study have revealed absolutely no evidence that mandatory minimums deter drug activity. The Federal Judicial Center concluded that “mandatory minimums had no observable effect” on crime or drug availability. The RAND Corporation concluded that mandatory minimums were inefficient and ineffective at controlling access to illegal drugs. And while proponents of the new mandatory minimum believe stiffer penalties will reduce the likelihood that addicts will reoffend, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission recently found that “neither length of sentence nor the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence alone was related to recidivism.”

Indeed, 40 years of evidence from other states’ experiments with mandatory minimums shows conclusively that mandatory minimum drug laws do not deter drug trafficking or abuse. Take just two states as examples. In 1973, New York imposed harsh mandatory minimums on drug dealers and users. Michigan followed suit a few years later. Both states saw their prison populations explode (along with their Corrections budgets) while drug abuse remained unaffected. Taxpayers were paying hundreds of millions of dollars to incarcerate low-level drug users, and receiving no public safety or health benefits in return.

With support from law enforcement and prosecutors, lawmakers in both states eventually repealed their mandatory minimum drug laws. After doing so, neither New York nor Michigan has seen drug use increase.

Florida’s experience also offers compelling evidence that mandatory minimums do not deter drug activity. In 1999, Florida passed mandatory minimums for trafficking in prescription painkillers. Illegal possession of just seven pills triggers a three-year mandatory minimum, and possession of 44 pills yields a mandatory minimum 25-year prison sentence. But despite those penalties, painkiller trafficking and painkiller abuse both skyrocketed.

Even criminologists who support strict penalties as a means of reducing crime oppose mandatory minimums for drug offenses. For instance, Professor John DiIulio, a pro-incarceration criminologist who typically finds himself opposing what he calls “the soft-in-the-head anti-incarceration left,” once supported mandatory minimum drug laws. However, after extensive research, DiIulio concluded that mandatory minimum drug laws do not deter drug activity. He now opposes mandatory minimums for drug-only offenses.

We know with near-certainty that mandatory minimums do not provide the deterrent effects their proponents promise. Across the country, state legislatures have correctly concluded that wasting tens of millions of tax dollars incarcerating low-level drug offenders is simply not a smart way to fight crime or drug abuse. That’s why states like Georgia, South Carolina and Florida have begun reforming their mandatory minimum drug laws. It’s clear Louisiana legislators want to protect Louisianans, which is why they should consider policies that are proven to work, and forego ones that are proven not to.

Greg Newburn is the Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-partisan nonprofit group working to reform sentencing policies at the state and national levels. Read more