After spending 25 years in law enforcement as a sheriff’s deputy, a sergeant, and a federal security adviser, reading the new American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) report on Arizona drug sentences brought some painful memories back. Working in Gila County at the height of the crystal meth epidemic, I dealt daily with people committing crimes because of their addiction, putting officers and even their own mothers in danger. The report provides concrete evidence that cycling Arizonans through jails doesn’t stop them from using drugs. In order to make communities safer, we need to invest in programs that truly hold people accountable and tackle the root causes of their addiction.
I still remember one of my calls that impacted me most and really highlighted the problems with drug prohibition. I responded to a call from a mother whose son stole cash out of her wallet to buy crystal meth. I pulled into her trailer park to find a shirtless man I’ll call Mark, with visible ribs, crystal meth sores covering his chest and arms, wearing jean shorts that used to fit but were now held up by an awkwardly cinched belt. I asked Mark how he could steal from his own mother, and he broke down crying. Mark confessed that he’d done things he was terribly ashamed of to buy meth and that he had tried and failed to get into local treatment centers. He begged me to help him find a treatment bed, but I didn’t have any tools to help – I had no choice but to arrest him. This happened dozens of times throughout my career, and I wasn’t the only officer watching the revolving door turn. This new report shows almost half of all drug offenders in Arizona return to prison within three years. Law enforcement officers like me need to be equipped to stop the cycle of crime and incarceration caused by addiction.
It’s not just people addicted to drugs who are affected by our one-size-fits-all approach to drug possession. When I was still in training, I learned this firsthand at a traffic stop on Bell Road just north of Phoenix when I was working for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. We stopped the car of a young black man wearing a brown, preppy sweater. He looked at me nervously from the driver’s seat. My field-training officer (FTO) told me to search the car, and I found half of a marijuana joint in the ashtray. My FTO instructed me to arrest him. I’ll never forget as I leaned the young man over the hood and cuffed his wrists behind his back, I could see tears rolling down his cheeks. He told me that he was headed to an Ivy League school on scholarship in the fall, and we both knew this arrest would cost him the scholarship. Not only was I wasting time when I could have been stopping real crime, I was wasting human potential. As the new AFSC report shows, in 2015, there were 4,745 people charged with marijuana possession or use in Maricopa County alone.
To change our approach, first we need to stop sending these people to prison with arbitrary and counterproductive sentences — we need sentencing reform. Second, we need to give police more tools to deal with addiction, such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). LEAD is a program that allows trained officers to divert someone addicted to drugs to a case manager instead of a jail cell. The case manager sits down at a table every week with a police officer, a prosecutor, an attorney, and service providers to make sure that person is being connected to the appropriate services and getting help. LEAD has been successful from Canton, Ohio, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has reduced related recidivism by 55 percent.
My career in uniform proved to me that our current drug sentencing policies make our communities less safe by failing to confront addiction, wasting criminal justice resources, and spoiling human potential. I hope that the people of Arizona will recognize that sentencing reform and new tools to confront addiction are crucial steps toward creating the communities we want to leave for our grandchildren.
— Terry Blevins, who spent 25 years in law enforcement, is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice professionals who use their expertise to advance drug policy and criminal justice
solutions that improve public safety.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.