Sentencing Policy & the Science of Addiction

I wanted to write further on drug sentencing and the science of addiction.  Amy posted a similar article last week with an interesting discussion of the policy consequences.  This article, Three Strikes Law & Drug Addiction: What Does The Science Say, by Jacqueline Howard of the Huffington Post, began with the same policy premise.  Namely, many states have “three strikes” laws that create harsh sentences for repeat offenders.

The most troubling cases concern non-violent offenders who continually commit the same drug-related crimes because of addiction.  Researchers recently used MRI scans to study the effects of long-term substance abuse on the brain.  As the article details and we referenced in class, drug use can diminish perceptual awareness, sleeping habits, heart rate, and the brain’s reward system.  Even before drug use, some of these people show preexisting vulnerability to addiction.

It’s hardly surprising that the criminal decisions of drug users are affected by their substance abuse.  But research specifically showing a preexisting predilection to addiction or a diminished ability to control behavior is plainly relevant to sentencing policy.  It makes less sense to rely on increasingly harsh punishment when a defendant was compromised from the outset or had a decreasing capacity to overcome addiction.  In short, these laws increase punishment, even as the defendant’s capacity to resist diminishes.

These studies also speak to broader themes of retribution and rehabilitation.  Drug defendants, of course, are not blameless.  But effectively deterring drug use should at least rely on an accurate understanding of the defendant’s decision-making process.  Treating drug users like any other defendant thwarts society’s efforts from the start.



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