SALEM, Ore. — Two associations of law enforcement leaders in Oregon are recommending that possession of small amounts of drugs be downgraded to misdemeanors, saying that branding users as felons and locking them up doesn’t help them or their communities.
The appeal by the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and Oregon Association Chiefs of Police comes as sentiment grows in the U.S. about rethinking the war on drugs. Sending people to prison, including under mandatory stiff sentencing, has done little to curtail drug use in the country, which is now struggling with opioid addiction.
In southern Oregon’s Josephine County, for example, 2010 saw only four heroin-related prosecutions; by 2014 there were 237, the Daily Courier newspaper reported last week.
Several efforts are underway in the county to deal with the problem, including a “sobering center” established in a former warehouse that provides a safe place for people getting off addictive substances, and a treatment center that will offer methadone and support programs.
The Oregon law enforcement groups noted in a statement that drug possession often results in felony convictions, which “include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”
Convicted users should instead be given individualized, mandated treatment, the groups said.
The groups said that they’re committed to work with Gov. Kate Brown, lawmakers and prosecutors “to craft a more thoughtful approach to drug possession when it is the only crime committed.”
The governor’s press secretary said Brown is “pursuing policy changes to advance equity and fairness in Oregon’s criminal justice system.”
“The recommendation made by the Oregon sheriffs and police chiefs is the type of innovative approach to criminal justice reform that Gov. Brown supports,” press secretary Bryan Hockaday said in an email to The Associated Press.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon also applauded the stance taken by the sheriffs and police chiefs groups.
“We are encouraged that Oregon law enforcement recognize that harsh drug laws have been a failure, wasting taxpayer money and disproportionately impacting communities of color,” said Kimberly McCullough, legislative director at the ACLU of Oregon.
David Rogers, executive director at the ACLU of Oregon, noted that when someone is charged with a felony drug crime it can prevent access to housing, employment, education and more.
The sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ associations said limited criminal justice resources should be focused on addressing violent crime and property crime.
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