By The Washington Post (View source article)
First-time offenders caught with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and other illegal drugs will face less jail time and smaller fines under a new bill approved by the Oregon legislature that aims to curb mass incarceration.
The Oregon legislature passed a bill late last week that reclassifies possession of several drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, reducing the punishments and expanding access to drug treatment for people without prior felonies or convictions for drug possession. Oregon lawmakers hope to encourage drug users to seek help rather than filling up the state’s prisons as an epidemic of abuse spreads.
“We are tying to move policy toward treatment rather than prison beds,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R, co-chair of the public safety committee and a supporter of the bill. “We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”
The bill also attempts to reduce racial profiling via data collection and analysis to help police departments understand when their policies or procedures result in disparities.
If signed into law, Oregon would be among just a few states that have reduced punishments for possession of small amounts of some illicit drugs, what some call the “decriminalization” of drug possession. Proponents say the bill marks a significant step toward addressing racial disparities in incarceration that developed as a result of the “war on drugs” approach to crime. The bill reflects a wider trend in which many states struggling to manage the opioid addiction crisis are working to treat drug abuse more as a public health concern than a criminal matter.
In Oregon, several law enforcement agencies worked with lawmakers to craft portions of 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,” Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, wrote in a letter of support for the bill. “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.”
Despite garnering support from law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups, the majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted against the bill, as did some Democrats.