Despite much talk about criminal justice reform, at least 13 states have passed laws in recent years that stiffened penalties for opioids painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl — largely in response to the epidemic.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin had a promise in his State of the Commonwealth speech in February: “Criminal justice reform is coming.” Last year, Bevin set up a panel to study criminal justice reform. In an op-ed for the Washington Times, Bevin touted legislation that lets some former inmates expunge their records. This year, Bevin signed a bill that — in a striking contradiction — responded to the opioid epidemic with more incarceration, reports Vox.com. It increased penalties for trafficking heroin below 2 grams to five to 10 years in prison, up from one to five years, and applied similar penalties to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Subsequent offenses carry harsher sentences.
Kentucky’s story isn’t atypical. There has been a lot of talk about treating the opioid epidemic as a public health, not criminal justice, issue, unlike past drug crises. The cliché is that “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.” The rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. At least 13 states, including Kentucky, have passed laws in recent years that stiffened penalties for opioids painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl — largely in response to the epidemic. In sharp contrast to all the talk about criminal justice reform and public health, these laws risk sending even low-level, nonviolent drug offenders — many of whom are addicted to drugs and need help for that addiction — to prison for years or decades. As the opioid epidemic continues to kill tens of thousands of people in the US each year, many state lawmakers have gone back to the old criminal justice playbook to fight the crisis.