By Lily Walter, CJPC Intern
Prosecutors wield enormous power in the “war against drugs.” They have the ability to widen the net of who is convicted of drug charges in the way they interpret and pursue laws. This ranges from charging mothers addicted to drugs with child abuse, to combating anyone whose opinion differs from their own.
According to this story, there are over 2,000 elected District Attorneys in the U.S., and they are not concerned with the courts of public opinion. Instead, they continue to fight the war on drugs on their own terms. Filter conducted a survey of the prosecutors in the 50 most populated counties in the U.S. and discovered that prosecutorial practices still push towards the criminalization of drug offenders.
Although most Americans now favor legalization, or at least decriminalization of marijuana, 67% of the prosecutors surveyed were opposed to decriminalizing marijuana. In addition, police officers and prosecutors alike continue to disregard decriminalization laws and find other ways to convict drug offenders.
The criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately affected people of color, and the application of drug laws continues to affect communities of color more than any other group. Even in counties where marijuana is decriminalized, people of color often are still victims of racially biased sentences.
Another shift towards harsher sentences has been the “drug-induced homicide” laws that allow for the prosecution of anyone who provided drugs to a person who died of an overdose. These laws have not decreased the number of overdose deaths, but have instead widened the net of those caught in the correctional system. Every prosecutor surveyed was open to this law in some capacity. As the opioid crisis rages on, many counties hit especially hard are utilizing these laws with increasing frequency.
Although bipartisan support for getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing laws is on the rise, many places still have these laws on the books. 36% of those surveyed continue to use mandatory minimum sentencing laws. However, many prosecutors have also spoken out against these laws, leaving a great deal of debate among prosecutors about the validity of mandatory minimums.
90% of surveyed prosecutors support drug courts, which are programs requiring drug offenders to go through treatment. However, these programs tend to focus on using punitive measures as a means of motivating people to move past their addiction. While diversion programs attempt to find and treat individuals before they have a run in with the criminal justice system, this can both increase the number of those under the purview of corrections, and still punishes those who relapse. Currently, a suitable treatment method does not seem to exist yet.
Prosecutorial discretion has longdictated the ways laws are applied and enforced, and continues to impact drugpolicies, with newer DAs being more likely to implement reforms. With interestin law enforcement on the rise thanks to movements like Black Lives Matter,many incumbent prosecutors are beginning to be pushed out by advocates ofreform. The role of prosecutors cannot be understated; they wield great powerin the application of laws, and bear responsibility for the changing of ourcriminal justice system.