Smart Justice Is Fair Justice

As anyone familiar with our criminal justice system can tell you, it’s too big, too harsh, and too frequently making matters worse rather than better for the people involved and their friends, family, and neighbors. Researchers, advocates, and policymakers dedicated to solving these problems spend months and years analyzing specific circumstances in specific jurisdictions to determine the best, most effective policy changes to make improvements. But to what end? Sometimes the questions are complex, like, how do we prevent violence and respond more effectively when it happens? But sometimes the issue is simple and straightforward.

One of those simple issues is drug possession.

No one should go to prison for drug possession. We don’t jail people for drinking alcohol, even if they become alcoholics. Further, no one should bear the lifelong consequences of a felony record for drug possession. Felony records erect unnecessary barriers to housing, education, and employment, which are all essentials for stability, and stability is essential to recovery. Home, school, and work all build community. And connection with community is the antidote to the isolation of addiction.

Additionally, felonies can take away people’s right to vote, the hallmark of civic engagement and equal standing in society. When we take away someone’s right to vote, we relegate them to second-class citizenship and push them further away from full participation in the life of a community. Even if a felony conviction does not result in a jail or prison sentence, it is a scarlet letter that will forever exert a destabilizing, marginalizing, and oppressive force in a person’s life.

Eighty-seven percent of Americans believe people struggling with drug addiction don’t belong in prison. They believe these individuals belong in treatment instead. And yet, despite this overwhelming consensus that the response to drug use should be grounded in health policy, not punishment, simple possession of drugs remains a felony in a majority of states. States like Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, but also Illinois, Ohio, and Washington all have laws on the books that felonize minor drug possession.

But the tide is changing. 

This year, the legislatures of three states — one red, two blue — reclassified the simple possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. Utah, Connecticut, and Maine all joined California, whose voters passed Proposition 47 last year by a 60-40 percent margin, as the first four states in recent memory to take this important step away from the “War on Drugs” prohibitionist paradigm and toward a smarter health-based approach. While a small group of states have treated some or all drug possession as a misdemeanor for years, the legislators and voters in these four states are the first to make this important course correction since the “tough on crime” era of the ’80s and ’90s, which saw our prison population rise by over 400 percent.

Strong communities are safe communities. A smart justice system operates with that principle in mind, investing in the recovery, not punishment, of families touched by drug-related problems. The bipartisan alliance of legislators and governors who supported the reforms in Utah, Connecticut, and Maine understood that scaling back harsh criminal sanctions and limiting the unnecessary burdens they place on individuals and families is a step toward stronger, safer communities in these states.

In the coming year, other states like Ohio and Illinois will be engaging in comprehensive, top-to-bottom reviews of their entire criminal justice codes and systems. We urge policymakers, legislators, advocates, and impacted community members to take a hard look at drug possession laws and push to keep this momentum moving in the right direction – toward a better, smarter justice system that lets health issues be treated like health issues, not crimes.


View comments (8)
Read the Terms of Use






Addictions is a biochemical imbalance in the body. It is a diseasse. The punishment shall go to the person who sells drugs. The law suppose to stop the person from being a danger to society, and show that is possible to be productive and live as a human is society. The current law is managed in a way that whoever breaks the law pays financially at the moment, loose freedom and it becomes the black sheep in society. For the rest of the persons life will carry the mark of unwanted. We are all humans. Everybody deserves a chance.


just not the choice in your opinion to feel better.


Ann Williams

"We don’t jail people for drinking alcohol, even if they become alcoholics."...Really? Then why was I jailed for drinking alcohol and now have a criminal record, when in fact I was not in possession of alcohol, wasn't drinking it or anywhere near it?..Because it's charged as a drug offense.


So sorry Ann, I also live in a crooked state.... I have friends that send me things on facebook to support the police.... ANd I can't do it. It is a twist of this so called justice. good luck to you.


Decriminalizing weed is a good move, since it grows wild and a good source of textile fiber. Anything can be misused, including a public servant like Davis the KY fried clerk who can't allow one of her subordinates to hand out the relevant documents to same sex applicants.

Good luck stopping mass incarceration. Everything becomes a crime when people are taught to think that way with law and order TV shows and numerous spinoffs. Drug offenders are just trying to cope with problems and are not all monsters. They do, however, provide cheap labor for big business and supported by cheap labor conservatives. Control the economy and you don't need to worry about who is king.


Can someone with a manufacturing charge and another with reckless homicide work at anns hallmark

Stay Informed