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For drug offenses, unlock prison cells and let people heal

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It’s a surprising coalition. Some of our most conservative lawmakers and some of our most liberal reformers have joined forces for court reform — and especially for sentencing reform. It’s an alliance that has even brought together such unlikely forces as the libertarian Koch brothers, former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump.

All of them have looked at the data and come away with the same conclusion: Locking ’em up and throwing away the key has proven a mostly useless tool in fighting crime and halting our national opioid addiction. And it’s costing us a fortune. It’s time to find some new crime-fighting tools.

In Washington, that movement produced the First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law last year. It eases rigid mandatory-sentencing requirements, allows more discretion for judges and helps inmates incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses with rehabilitation and earlier release. The president is now pushing the “Second Step Act,” which would ease former inmates’ paths back into the workforce.

Here in North Carolina, Republican Sen. Bob Steinburg and two fellow GOP senators are trying to do the same with Senate Bill 404, which would give state judges more discretion on sentences for drug criminals. It also would give nonviolent drug offenders the opportunity to seek reductions in their sentences or outright release.

Steinburg told a News & Observer reporter that his bill is a version of the First Step Act. “This isn’t going soft on crime,” he said. “This is doing what’s right.”

The senator has some high-level conservative support, including the groups Americans for Prosperity and the American Conservative Union. He’s hoping that will help him gain support from conservative lawmakers in Raleigh, who in the past have pushed hard for even longer sentences for drug offenders. It’s a strategy that doesn’t make sense, Steinburg says that about a quarter of the 35,000 people imprisoned in North Carolina at any given time are locked up because of drug offenses, and many would be better served — as would society — by addiction treatment.

This is part of the ongoing American War on Drugs, the nearly five-decades-long exercise in frustration and failure that has only seen addiction increase. That’s because it relied entirely on interdiction and imprisonment and ignored addicts’ almost unquenchable appetite for drugs. As long as the market was there, the pushers — from the huge international cartels to the street-corner dealers — would be there to meet the demand and make enormous profits. And when any of the cogs in that ever-turning wheel were removed, others would step in to take their place.

That’s how it’s been since the 1970s. And yet, some lawmakers still believe we can arrest our way out of the problem. That fantasy has cost the country trillions of dollars.

It’s costing North Carolina taxpayers plenty, as well. Those mandatory minimum sentences are keeping drug offenders in jail when they could be in a rehab facility, gaining the strength and knowledge they need to stay away from drugs and lead a productive life.

And yet, for many of our state lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — it’s a badge of courage and a political necessity to declare that you’re “tough on crime.” That toughness has long translated into ever-longer mandatory sentences for even nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. And our community addiction problem is worse than it’s ever been. What we’re doing isn’t working.

And what Steinburg and his fellow Senate Bill 404 sponsors propose would work better. It won’t, by itself, halt our drug epidemic, but it will be more effective than the mass incarceration that’s proven useless. It will channel more of our drug offenders into rehabilitation, which is where they belong. And in the long run, it will also save us a lot of money. We hope a majority of the General Assembly understands that.

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