Not only has American society come a long way since the so-called war on drugs began during the Reagan administration, but our attitudes toward drugs have changed as well. When harsher enforcement and penalties began during the 1980s, “opioid epidemic” had not entered our lexicon and prescription drug abuse was nascent. Drug abuse was seen as a personal failing, not as a symptom of the illness of addiction. Now, with decades of battles in the form of criminal prosecution to look back on, we can see the financial and human casualties of our failed sentencing policies.
Arizona has taken a particularly hostile stance on drug crimes. Charging decisions made at the prosecutorial level that make any drug crime a felony by default, and a sentencing structure that requires mandatory prison time, both contribute to the current state of affairs. This creates incredibly high stakes for any defendant, but also leads to plea offers with harsher punishments to avoid the even harsher mandatory minimum sentencing that would result from trial. Of the criminal charges filed in Maricopa County in 2015, eight of the 10 most charged offenses were either drug or alcohol-related — and NOT for sales or trafficking offenses.
After charging, drug offenses take a darker turn with Arizona’s classification of these crimes and the steep penalties they may carry. By default, possession of either marijuana or drug paraphernalia – without any minimum amount stated – is charged as a Class 6 felony. While some prosecutors choose to charge possession in small quantities as misdemeanor offenses, they must make the decision to charge down from what state law proscribes. In practice, many prosecutors charge even trace amounts of drugs as felonies and strategically charge the highest possible level of offense. This strategy enables a plea offer that looks compassionate by comparison to the maximum allowable sentence. It is not unusual to see a drug possession defendant with two prior felony convictions – even simple drug possession offenses – receive a plea offer of two and a half to four and a half years in prison.
A recent American Friends Service Committee study on drug sentencing confirms what many have said for years: Arizona’s prisons are filled with people whose only crime was to possess or ingest controlled substances. For some, this practice was simply a choice. For many more, it was borne of illness — mental, physical or both. So many people could be helped with treatment and services, and the committee study unveils that they are certainly not receiving either in prison.
Instead of getting these people into the treatment programs they need to overcome their addiction, Arizona taxpayers are paying for them to sit isolated in the world’s least effective “time out.”
These people are our friends, family, and loved ones. They deserve compassion and care. As taxpayers, we deserve to not be paying the high cost of incarceration when recovery efforts would otherwise allow them to be productive, contributing members of society.
— Alex Benezra is a Phoenix-based criminal defense attorney and is the founding attorney of Alexander S. Benezra, PLLC.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.