Bold new approaches to drug policy and criminal justice took center stage at a meeting of security ministers in Latin America this month.
In calling for an end to mass incarceration, drug-related violence, and militarization of drug policy, civil society groups found a powerful ally. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promoted his government’s evolving approach to drugs and its push to reduce the number of minor drug offenders in prison:
I took action this summer to bring about a significant change … with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes—so that certain people who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, and who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels—will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
As it stands, roughly 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars in the United States. Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance abuse problems. Statistics show that many are likely to reoffend after they are released from prison—cycling through our federal and state criminal justice systems at great cost to American taxpayers—and without real benefit to public safety.
Holder’s statement came after human rights groups called on government security agencies to rein in the worst excesses of the drug war. More than 50 human rights and drug policy organizations called for a reassessment of drug policy priorities to put more emphasis on:
- Violence reduction
- Proportionality of sentences for drug-related offenses
- Accountability for gender-specific impacts of the drug war, including mass incarceration of women
- Decriminalization of minor offenses
- Demilitarization of the war on drugs
Latin American organizations—including CELS, Intercambios, Proderechos, México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, along with U.S.-based ACLU, Washington Office on Latin America, and many others—issued a statement:
In our region, the structure and organization of the criminal networks that control the illegal drugs market have penetrated and corrupted governmental institutions, including the police forces, undermining their capacity to provide security to the communities. For this reason, we believe it is necessary to start discussing changes in the States’ response to this problem, by providing security in relation to organized crime, and by strengthening … health policies regarding prevention and treatment of those persons suffering from a problematic use of substances, either legal or illegal, while establishing a criminal policy that can reduce the impact of drug policies on penitentiary systems.
The meeting of senior officials responsible for public security in Latin America took place in Colombia. Attendees analyzed the security situation in the Americas and debated international cooperation to enhance security in the region.
The letter follows an earlier missive to Latin American leaders during the Organization of American States General Assembly, to call for drug policies with a greater focus on health and human rights.