Crack vs. Opiods: Greater Lenience Now for Users - Diverse Health

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Crack vs. Opiods: Greater Lenience Now for Users


by Riley Yates and Steve Esack, Associated Press

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — When Leola Bivins was first sent away for dealing drugs, she was a 22-year-old high school dropout with a 2-year-old daughter at home.

Addiction was the center of the life she knew in East Stroudsburg, where she was born and raised, she recalled recently. Bivins’ mother was a heroin addict — she eventually died of an overdose — and seemingly everyone around her was either selling drugs or abusing them, Bivins said.

That was nearly 20 years ago and a drug scare was sweeping Pennsylvania and the nation, prompting pledges by lawmakers to beat back the scourge. But if today’s heroin epidemic has brought calls for better treatment and more compassion, the mid-1980s to late-1990s’ crack cocaine epidemic prompted a very different response: Lock them up and throw away the key.
Bivins experienced that firsthand, spending nine and a half years in state and federal prisons for selling cocaine and crack. Now 41, she has turned her life around. She holds a bachelor’s degree and hopes to get her master’s, and she works as a counselor for at-risk girls at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center in Easton.

“I don’t think I was treated fairly in the beginning,” Bivins said. “I was young. I didn’t have an education. I needed treatment.”

To backers, the war on drugs of the ’80s and ’90s was needed medicine at a time when society’s ills — violent crime, the rise of gangs — required quarantine. But to a growing number of critics, the effort was at best misguided and at worst devastating to the communities it affected, which were disproportionately urban, black or Hispanic.

Today, even some of its most vocal supporters have abandoned the get-tough measures as ineffective and draconian. But taxpayers continue to grapple with the effects, under which Pennsylvania built and renovated 20 state prisons since the mid-1980s, as its inmate population more than tripled to 49,561 and its corrections budget more than doubled to $2.2 billion, state Corrections Department records show.


The same is true at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where the number of inmates has grown more than fourfold since 1986, to 191,024 — nearly half of whom are in for drug offenses. This year, taxpayers will spend $7.5 billion for it, more than 12 times higher than the cost three decades ago.

“We did a lot of damage to the African-American community with that approach,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, the longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee who was once one of the champions of the state’s tough-on-crime laws.

“We thought they were good policies,” Greenleaf said. “To some degree they were, but we never calculated the unintended consequences.”

At the state level, many of those laws are now vestiges of the past. Almost all of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentences for drugs — which tie judges’ hands by forcing them to impose strict prison terms — have been thrown out by the courts under a string of rulings that found them unconstitutional, and the Legislature, so far, has been unwilling to reinstate them.

At the federal level, sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking have been scaled back, and the Justice Department under Democratic President Barack Obama less aggressively sought harsh punishments for drug dealing.

At the same time, Obama used his clemency powers on behalf of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences, releasing more federal prisoners than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

Obama has given commutations to 1,023 inmates, most of whom were serving decades, and in many cases life, for selling drugs. Among them were 26 prisoners from Pennsylvania, including 13 from Philadelphia and one from Reading.

But while those initiatives have enjoyed bipartisan support, how they will fare under the Republican administration of President-elect Donald Trump is an open question.

During the campaign, Trump pledged to be the “law and order” candidate and complained that violent crime is “out of control,” though he offered few specific policy proposals. His choice for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a vocal backer of harsh sentences for drug offenses, with the Drug Policy Alliance, a reform group, labeling him a “drug war dinosaur.”

“States don’t want to spend money on prisons,” Sessions acknowledged last year in opposing changes in national drug policy. “But the truth is that people who tend to be criminals tend to continue to be criminals and commit crimes. And we ignore too often the pain, the destruction, the damage it does to innocent people who are afraid to have their children out and who suffer through the turmoil of being a crime victim.”

Despite Sessions’ recent statements, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett doesn’t believe he will seek to turn back the clock on drug enforcement. Corbett got to know Sessions while both served as U.S. attorneys and state attorneys general in the

1980s and 1990s.

“Lock ’em up and throw away the key, that was in the ’90s,” said Corbett, who soon will be working on a National Governors Association grant-funded project to develop nationwide justice reform guidelines.

Trump’s and Sessions’ comments also do not bother state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, hired by Corbett in 2011 and retained by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. There are enough conservative lawmakers embracing criminal justice reform due to cost overruns and the impact on families to offset possible plans by the incoming administration to spend more on prisons, Wetzel said.

“It’s easy when you are outside of this system to make these broad, sweeping statements,” he said. “But Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are going to inherit a federal system that’s bloated (and) that over-incarcerates non-violent individuals.”


The crack cocaine epidemic started in the mid-1980s and was fueled in part by a “media frenzy” that overstated the scope of the drug use and violence that was occurring, said Steven Belenko, a Temple University criminal justice professor who has written a book on the era’s response.

“It was a mutual frenzy— media and politicians,” Belenko said.

Starting in 1986, Congress instituted tougher laws for drug violations, but especially for crack cocaine, which was legislatively determined to be more dangerous than powder cocaine. States then followed.

In 1987, an estimated 5 percent of the nation’s 17,963 homicides were drug-related, according to FBI crime data cited in a 2008 U.S. Justice Department report. The homicide-drug link had risen to nearly 7 percent of 20,273 deaths by 1990.

With opinion polls showing the topic foremost in voters’ minds, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge campaigned in 1994 on a promise to crack down on crime.

“No single factor imperils the character of our society — our commonwealth — as much as crime,” Ridge said in his Jan. 17, 1995, inaugural. Pennsylvania would launch a prison construction boom during Ridge’s tenure.
The public demanded action, said Corbett, who oversaw a special legislative session Ridge called to address crime. There was real fear, Corbett said, due to the gang violence festering in cities and spreading elsewhere.

The raft of mandatory minimum sentences that followed over the next decade were aimed at taking those offenders off the streets. Someone who sold drugs near a school would face a sentence of at least two years in prison. A dealer caught with a gun in his home during a police drug raid would risk five years at minimum.

With the collapse of those mandatories today, those same defendants could easily see far different outcomes. Sentencing guidelines might recommend as little as probation to a three-month stint in jail — a sea change in their fates.

The tougher laws succeeded in reducing crime at first, Wetzel said. Then lawmakers kept adding more, which reduced their effectiveness by sending too many non-violent offenders to prisons, he said.

“The legislation sought to catch a bunch of big fish and it caught a bunch of little fish too,” Wetzel said. “When we bring low-risk individuals into the state prison system or the federal prison system, they come out worse.”


By the mid-to-late-1990s the crack epidemic was fizzling out. At the same time, opioid addictions were picking up, with cheaper heroin and the rise of prescription narcotics.

As heroin and opioid abuse began skyrocketing across Pennsylvania, state prisons continued to bulge with inmates — though more of them were white.

In 1996, whites were 17 percent of the 5,218 inmates incarcerated for drug offenses in state prisons, Department of Corrections records show. In 2012, whites accounted for 24 percent of the 8,044 inmates imprisoned for drug crimes.

Faced with rising populations and costs, Corbett and Wetzel implemented plans to reduce inmate numbers. Wolf has continued that approach. The state’s prison population is down 3 percent from 2012 and it saved $51 million, though Wetzel said 40 percent of new inmates are still non-violent offenders.

Many of those non-violent offenders were addicts, though the heroin epidemic was still building to today’s crisis.
On the streets and in emergency rooms, first responders and doctors are rushing to stop overdose deaths in cities and suburbs, poor and affluent neighborhoods. More than 265,000 people nationwide died of opioid-related overdoses between 1999 and 2014. In Pennsylvania, the death toll rose to 3,383 between 2014 and 2015 alone.

Objectively, said Temple professor Belenko, the public health problem caused by the heroin-opioid crisis is far greater than the crack epidemic, which centered mostly in inner cities.

“It’s not even close,” he said.

In the Legislature, steam has picked up on bills focusing on treatment and prevention, rather than incarceration. Wolf and lawmakers have held numerous community forums on heroin, and the new state budget includes $34 million for new treatment centers.

In September, Wolf gave a rare speech before a joint session of the House and Senate, calling on them to pass more legislation.

“We must act now,” he said. “Many Pennsylvania families are counting on us.”

Lawmakers responded by passing bills to limit doctors’ abilities to write opioid prescriptions in emergency rooms and to prescribe opioids to minors, to have medical school students learn when to properly prescribe opiates, and to require medical practitioners to check the state’s prescription drug monitoring database more frequently than they had in the past.
“What we have seen over time is that too often our jails are being filled with people who actually need medical treatment to deal with severe addictions,” Wolf said in a statement. “The result is over-crowded prisons and high rates of recidivism. The commonwealth will continue working collaboratively to push policies that expand treatment options, cut down on recidivism, and crack down on criminals who are supplying the drugs that are tearing our communities apart.”

Such a stance echos the 1970s, said Gary Asteak, an Easton defense attorney who started practicing law in that decade.
“I used to be able to go in and argue, ‘He had a bad childhood. He needs treatment,’ and the judges would listen,” Asteak said. “Rehabilitation was a buzz word that meant something back then.”

Only with heroin’s creep into the suburbs and into more affluent, white neighborhoods has drug addiction again begun to be treated like a medical problem, Asteak said.

“Before, we wanted to get them off the street and out of sight and out of mind,” he said.

The differing approach hasn’t been lost on local black leaders. Nor is the fact that blacks made up 88 percent of the crack offenders in federal prisons in 2012, according to a Justice Department report.

“Heroin now, you can get help,” said Lance Wheeler, Easton NAACP president. “Crack cocaine, you got put in jail.”
Esther Lee, who heads the Bethlehem NAACP, said that during the crack epidemic, treatment wasn’t a priority.
“They didn’t try that. There was no talk when it was African-Americans in the forefront,” Lee said.

There is no mistaking the war on drugs had a greater impact on minorities, but that doesn’t mean it was racially motivated, said Democratic state Sen. Anthony “Hardy” Williams of Philadelphia, one of five U.S. cities that a Harvard University study found had the highest levels of crack use.

“I don’t know if that is racism as much as it is benign neglect,” he said.

The prison cost being born by taxpayers, he added, is not a price of failure but a price for learning. Still, Williams said, policymakers could be heading for another costly lesson by overly focusing on heroin and not having a greater discussion on addiction as a whole.

“America has a drug problem and we’ve had it for a long time,” Williams said.