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Criminal law reform in drug cases: one representative example

For many years (in fact, for decades), a doctrinaire and uncompromising view has attached to criminal law policies promulgated across the country in matters relating to drug crimes defendants.

In a nutshell, the so-called War on Drugs embraces a philosophy that being soft on crime is destructive for communities, and that the primary deterrent to undercut the scourge of drug-related criminal activity is to lock up its participants.

And for a long time. The numbers relating to incarcerated drug crime inmates in state and federal facilities in California and nationally are instantly revealing -- and, for many people, shocking -- for their sheer dimensions. Many thousands of people are serving lengthy prison terms on what are arguably minor drug offenses. And many of those convicted individuals are first-time and nonviolent offenders.

Strong calls for reform have issued in recent years that demand changes in philosophy. Notably, reformists now number many politicians on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the country.

One recent story highlights reform calls even in areas that have proven to be comparatively conservative and on board with harsh criminal sentencing in past decades.

That tale emanates from North Carolina, where the police chief from one town has essentially engaged in a traveling road show across the state, urging other communities to duly embrace a rehabilitative approach to identifying and dealing with drug addicts that his department is now practicing.

The strategy deemphasizes lock up, opting instead to work with addicts in rehab treatment centers. The chief states that such a strategy clears yields outcomes that better respond to the core problems engendering addiction, makes meaningful inroads on the recidivism problem linked with prison terms, and renders communities safer.

That strategic tack is part and parcel of much reform effort currently underway across the country. It coincides with a reduction of harsh outcomes linked with so-called mandatory minimum sentences and the efforts of many state and federal officials to better address the root problems that drive addiction and yield dire consequences stemming from it.

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