Drug addiction and mental illness must be treated as public health issues, not as crimes worthy of jail. That is why the ACLU is working with advocacy organizations, the criminal defense bar, and law enforcement to devise community-based treatment and services for drug users and people with mental illness. The programs provide practical alternatives to the punitive, costly and discriminatory approaches of the War on Drugs . The goal is to keep individuals out of the criminal justice system, and to find better ways to help them function in society.
“The government has misdiagnosed drug dependency as a criminal problem, resulting in the prosecution and conviction of thousands of people who would be better served by treatment and support,” said Andy Ko, director of the ACLU-WA’s Drug Policy Reform Project. “In most cases, these people pose little threat to public safety. Locking them up neither helps them nor improves public safety.”
One promising initiative in Seattle is the city-funded “Clean Dreams” pilot project in the Rainier Beach community. Clean Dreams (which will soon receive King County funding as well) promotes public safety by providing social services to at-risk and drug-involved young adults, as an alternative to arrest and prosecution. ACLU staff helped design this alternative to criminalization and continues to participate in the coalition that supports the Clean Dreams program.
The state Legislature has also shown a willingness to rethink drug policy. For several years, the ACLU has participated in discussions with legislators about alternatives to the costly “just lock ‘em up” approach. These efforts contributed to substantial reforms in 2002, when legislators reduced sentences for several types of nonviolent drug offenses, and gave judges more discretion to set sentences. The following session brought a further sentencing reforms. This year, a bill (SB 5533) was introduced by Sen. Cheryl Pflug (R-Maple Valley) that would provide for an alternative to prosecuting mentally ill people suspected of committing a criminal offense. The bill passed out of the Senate in March with unanimous support.
Especially encouraging is the support of law enforcement for a statewide diversion program. In September, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in partnership with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, organized a summit to address the issues related to the criminalization of people suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. ACLU-WA Legislative Director Jennifer Shaw and Alison Chinn Holcomb, director of our Marijuana Education Project, participated in its conference on how to prevent the recycling of individuals through the criminal justice system. Recommendations generated by working groups formed during the summit will be used to shape reform measures to be proposed in the 2008 Legislature.
“All of these diversion projects are based on a common understanding – that there are more effective and less expensive methods of preserving public order and protecting individuals than placing them behind bars,” Ko said.