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A Louisiana judge just showed the exact wrong way to react to the heroin epidemic

A Louisiana man was sentenced to 50 years in prison without a chance for parole on Tuesday. The cause for such a strong sentence? Attempting to sell heroin on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge.

But in handing down the decision for Kedric Williams, District Judge Mike Erwin said his sentence wasn't harsh enough. As Joe Gyan Jr. reported for the Advocate, Erwin said he would have preferred to sentence Williams to life in prison — a sentence that isn't possible for heroin dealing in Louisiana, which in 2001 lowered the maximum penalty for heroin trafficking from life to 50 years.

"I am aware that the change in the sentencing provisions is not the only factor involved in the rise of heroin," Erwin said, "but I also know that when the penalty was life imprisonment, we didn't have as many heroin dealers and users on every street corner selling this poison to our citizens."

According to Erwin, Louisiana's decision to reduce the punishment for heroin dealing helped cause a rise in heroin traffickers in the state. "If a life sentence for dealing heroin were still an option," he said, "I would feel comfortable sentencing every convicted heroin dealer to life in prison without the eligibility of parole and truly believe it would be a start in the process of saving lives and hopefully run these criminals out of Baton Rouge."

Williams, who was on probation for aggravated assault with a firearm at the time he was arrested, will reportedly appeal the ruling.

But more broadly than Williams's case, Erwin's analysis of how to deal with heroin dealers fails to meet even a basic reading of the recent history of the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic and the empirical evidence for anti-drug laws.

The Louisiana judge's rationale for the sentence is deeply flawed

Heroin is a growing problem in the US. But it's not a problem particular to Louisiana. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Louisiana's death toll for opioid overdose is lower than dozens of other states:

Looking at this, it seems clear that the opioid epidemic — which began as more people used legal painkillers and some moved to another opioid, heroin — had little to do with Louisiana's sentences for drug trafficking. Instead, the state's recent rise in heroin deaths is part of a national epidemic that is afflicting various parts of the country with all sorts of sentencing schemes.

Yet according to Erwin, the Louisiana judge, before 2001 heroin dealers "stayed out of Louisiana for the most part" because the penalty was too harsh to be worth the risk. "Since the penalty has been reduced, Louisiana has given a 'green light' or a 'welcome sign' to dealers to come into our state," he said, according to the Advocate.

The empirical literature simply does not support this assessment. A 2014 study from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there's no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of pushing down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn't do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.

This is something that even some former supporters of harsh punishments for drugs now acknowledge. In congressional testimony, Kevin Ring, a former congressional aide who helped enact mandatory minimums and now speaks out against them through the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said, "Most of these guys made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was — they just didn't think they were going to get caught. So you can make the severity off the charts — you can do a life sentence for jaywalking — it's not going to stop it."

Yet America has a history of overreacting to drug epidemics — such as the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the heroin epidemic of the '70s — with incredibly harsh criminal penalties. And these penalties are one of the causes of mass incarceration in the US, which has stripped hundreds of thousands of people of their freedoms for nonviolent offenses, failed to significantly reduce crime, and cost state governments billions as they pay for more prisons and jails.

The failure of these policies is why much of the public response to the opioid epidemic has emphasized treating it as a public health, not criminal justice, issue. Last year, President Barack Obama's drug czar, Michael Botticelli, who effectively leads the war on drugs, said, "We can't arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people. … Not only do I think it's really inhumane, but it's ineffective and it cost us billions upon billions of dollars to keep doing this."

So not only does Judge Erwin get the causes of drug trafficking wrong, his response, if adopted widely to the opioid epidemic, would just perpetuate more ineffective and costly incarceration.

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