Late last week, Oregon approved a bill that aims to cut down the incarceration numbers of non-violent drug offenders. This new bill would allow first-time offenders caught with drugs such as Heroin, Methamphetamines, Cocaine, and other illegal drugs to be given less jail time and small fines.
What Could This New Oregon Bill Mean?
The new bill may likely open the door for these people to have a chance at getting treatment and getting help before they progress worse into their addiction and end up with a felony record. Sen. Jackie Winters (R) co-chair of the public safety explained, “We are trying to move policy toward treatment rather than prison beds, we can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance abuse.” The goal is to reduce punishment and increase resources for treatment.
The bill if passed, will help to decriminalize and reduce the number of those incarcerated as a result of America’s ongoing war on drugs, and the consequences that it has had on non-violent drug offenders.
This a shifting of perception to no longer viewing drug addiction as a criminal or moral issue, but as the public health concern that it really is. Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, wrote in a letter of support for the bill, “Too often, individuals with addiction issues find their way to the doorstep of the criminal justice system when they are arrested for possession of a controlled substance. Unfortunately, felony convictions in these cases also include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”
Does Race Play A Role in This New Law?
Data from studies paints a story of injustice for minorities such as African Americans and Native Americans. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that African Americans were convicted of felony drug possession at a rate that doubles the convictions of white offenders and Native Americans were convicted of drug possession five times that of the rate of whites.
Aaron Knott, legislative director for Oregon’s Office of the Attorney General, is looking forward to the bills passing and believes it will help counteract these trends while simultaneously increase access to substance abuse treatment for all Oregon citizens. As of now, there are some drug diversion programs in place in Oregon, but they are mostly in the wealthier areas of Oregon leaving drug offenders in less affluent counties with no option other than incarceration and fines which many times leaves these non-violent drug offenders who suffer from drug addictions to be treated as a criminal instead of given options for treatment.
Knott said, “So if you crossed the county line with a small amount of Heroin, in one county you could be looking at a felony. In another county, you could be looking at a misdemeanor with a pretty good access to treatment. We had a feeling this was unjust because the outcome is largely due to the county’s resources.”
The other aspect of the bill plans on addressing the issue of over-incarceration of minorities, by having the officers record demographic information during traffic and pedestrian stops. This will allow The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to keep track of the data so that the police departments are notified when there are any imbalances so that they can be more vigilant and make any changes needed to the way they deal with the public or who they profile. Oregon became the 31st state in 2015 to pass a law to help deal with racial profiling, but the bill they passed was incomplete and an investigation by Investigate West confirmed that Oregon’s black and Hispanic residents continued to face injustice in the Criminal Justice System after searching through over 10 years of court documents.
Controversy Behind the New Bill
While the bill has gathered support from law enforcement and agencies and advocacy groups, there are many who refuse to support the bill. Sen. Betsy Johnson has made her disapproval known and states that she sees this bill as a “hug-a-thug policy”, by which legislatures are attempting to reform the prison system and made a comment that the drugs are what damage people’s lives, not the drug sentences.
State Rep. Alan Olson (R.) also disagrees with the bill, writing to his constituents, “I fully support the collection of data to monitor racial profiling, but I am opposed to reducing drug classification.”
Gov. Kate Brown (D), who will oversee and review the bill, says that she looks forward to signing it and putting it into law and stated, “While we still have much work ahead, HB-2355 represents an important step toward creating a more equitable justice system to better serve all Oregonians, addressing disparities that too often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines should not be political issues. Here in Oregon, we’re demonstrating that we can make meaningful progress to improve the lives of Oregonians by working together around our shared values.”
Many others view that this is simply a more practical way of dealing with addiction, allowing addicted people to gain more access to rehabilitation and trying to address addiction at its roots instead of sending addicted people to jail, which does not address the issue.