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March 30, 2014

As heroin concerns grow, so do proposals to increase sentences

Everyone who follows sentencing reform developments knows that it is common for legislative proposals calling for longer prison terms to follow reports of a new or increased crime problem.  The biggest crime problem being discussed these days seems to be heroin use and abuse, and here are two stories from Louisiana and Ohio reporting on proposals to increase drug sentences:

The sentencing reform debate developing around heroin in Louisiana is especially interesting, and here are excerpt from the article linked above:

Heroin-related deaths soared last year from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and the drug has shown no signs of loosening its grip as the epidemic spills into more and more parishes. On the verge of panic, authorities are warning of a public health crisis that demands new methods of deterrence. “When we’re getting to people, they’re dead,” said Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent. “When we’re getting to people, the needle is still hanging out of their skin.”

Against this backdrop, law enforcement officials are supporting legislation to drastically increase prison time for heroin dealers and users, including a bill backed by the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association that would impose a mandatory minimum of two years behind bars — without parole — for anyone caught possessing even a small amount of heroin. House Bill 332 sailed through the House Criminal Justice Committee last week and is attracting bipartisan support, even among lawmakers otherwise skeptical of the “tough-on-crime” policies that have been blamed for Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate.

“I think everybody understands the danger of heroin,” said Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, the committee’s chairman and the author of the bill. “I don’t want to put them away for the rest of their lives, but from the other standpoint, I want to make it enough of a deterrent that when they do get out of prison they say, ‘I’m staying away from that stuff.’ That’s the purpose.”

The proposal, which also would double the mandatory minimum sentence for heroin distribution from five to 10 years, stands in sharp contrast to a package of other legislative measures that aim to reduce the state’s teeming prison population, in part by shortening jail time for nonviolent offenders. And it comes at a time of growing recognition among conservatives and liberals alike that mandatory minimums for drug offenses have strained state coffers while doing little, if anything, to curb crime.

“Louisiana already has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and part of the reason for that is their history with mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses,” said Lauren Galik, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, who has studied the state’s sentencing laws. “It clearly hasn’t served as a deterrent effect if people are still using drugs.” 

March 30, 2014 at 10:34 AM | Permalink


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This is really, really baffling to me. Reminds me of that fun gospel tune called "One More Night With the Frogs."

Give me one more night with them stinking frogs/
One more night in sin /

Had a terrible time with them last night /
But I just gotta do it again

Posted by: Texas Lawyer | Mar 30, 2014 11:21:59 AM

People might be interested in a dialogue Doug and I have had this weekend about a particularly sad heroin case.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2014 12:13:22 PM

The Louisiana version intensifies heroin possession laws under the guise of deterrence. How well has deterrence ever worked on vice crimes?

Further, as long as Burrage is law, the "murder" is already covered if found by a jury. They don't really need a separate law for it, that move is just "feel good".

Posted by: Skeptical | Mar 30, 2014 2:31:37 PM

I'm not sure which problem they're trying to solve in Louisiana. If they problem is that not enough people are in prison, then the policies they're considering will fit the problem like a glove.

If the problem is that too many people are dying of heroin overdoses, there are lots of things they can do that will actually address the problem. For instance, they could make overdose treatments like naloxone widely available and inexpensive. They could establish safe heroin injection rooms with associated drug treatment programs. They could put in place needle-exchange programs to reduce the incidence of disease. They could provide residential drug treatment programs for addicts caught with drugs. Lots of different things that will help reduce the harm from heroin use and might actually reduce the number of people using heroin.

But instead, they're just going to put more people in prison.

Posted by: C.E. | Mar 30, 2014 3:12:21 PM

C.E. --

Do you think heroin should be decriminalized?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2014 3:38:02 PM

I read that dialogue Bill had with Doug and it strikes me as the same old alarmist crap. I'm opposed to drug legalization, even marijuana, but I'm also opposed to ridiculous sentences that waste taxpayer money just so that the prosecutor can beat his breast and look macho in the eyes of his wife, and the prison union rake in the dough. We've been down that road, it doesn't work. In my view the type of appeals to emotion that come from Crime and Consequences is the reason I stopped reading that blog.

In the world of computer security the term is "security theater" and its time to admit that these draconian sentences are "crime theater". They make some people feel better but the reality is that nothing on the ground is changing.

I won't answer for C.E but I'll that (a) heroin should not be decriminalized and (b) prison should not be the first choice.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 30, 2014 4:35:56 PM

Daniel --

"We've been down that road, it doesn't work."

Actually, it does. As incarceration is up, crime is down. Way down.

"In my view the type of appeals to emotion that come from Crime and Consequences is the reason I stopped reading that blog."

And appeals to emotion are absent here??? Sure! Every other story I read about some putatively excessive sentence is an appeal to emotion -- e.g., the defendant is a veteran, had abusive parents, was bullied at school, etc., etc.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2014 4:46:56 PM

Over at C&C you said:
Now let me ask you this: What percentage of the population would you guess agrees with your view that a person who knowingly furnishes an overdose-level of heroin to a teenage addict should have no criminal liability whatever?

If you can produce evidence form any even vaguely neutral source that the number is even ten percent, I will be delighted to take all the Bermans to a steak dinner at the Ritz. (Actually, I'd be delighted anyway, but that's a different story).

I think you might want to get your wallet out. If you follow the Ohio link in Doug's post it takes you to www.cleveland.com next to the story is a poll on your issue. If you enter your vote if gives the results of the poll. So far 55% out of 198 blame the user not the dealer.

Posted by: ? | Mar 30, 2014 5:01:34 PM

? --

I won't even get into the fact that a call-in "poll" is anything but neutral, since the most extreme people tend to be the ones who call in.

I will just settle to note that you grossly misrepresent what the poll asks. What it asks is: "Should drug dealers be charged with murder when a customer dies from an overdose?"

My question, by contrast, was whether the person who furnishes the overdose amount "should have no criminal liability whatever."

Nice try on trying to pass those two things off as the same.

Well, actually, no. It wasn't a nice try. It was a pathetic try.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2014 5:55:47 PM

You would think that by now any time the government cries the alarm for more law it is time to dig under th bullshit.

"In 2010, enough opioid pain relievers (OPR) were sold to medicate every adult in the United States with the equivalent of a typical dose of 5 mg of hydrocodone every 4 hours for 1 month (1), a 300% increase in the sales rate over 11 years. This rise in distribution of OPR is concomitant with increasing rates of drug overdose death and chronic, nonmedical use of OPR." (CDC,Pdf)

Posted by: George | Mar 30, 2014 8:33:56 PM

Very smart people who became lawyers, and will not even consider a clue, let alone get one. I understand, I have to go very slowly.

There are naturalistic, historical experiments which are reliable.

Switzerland opened a park to heroin use without arrest. 25,000 people showed up. The neighbors complained.

The Swiss experience, the hard lessons learned, what the Swiss are doing today.


In Vietnam, there was no enforcement of opiate prohibition. 40% of our boys became addicts. Upon return, where there is prohibition, that rate dropped to 2%. When those remaining addicts were compared to non-military addicts, they had very similar personal characteristics, such as antisocial personality.

The 40 year old, but definitive study.


Prohibition did not have public support so alcohol use dropped only 50%. That was very valuable, with an economic boom, big drops in alcohol violent crime, outside of murders of bootleggers among themselves.

One must have two thirds public support. Then execute the dealers, up to 10,000 a year. Lash the users, a cheap remedy applicable to millions of people.

There is zero public support for prohibition, let alone the incredible government violence it would take to make it work.

In reply to my concern about his intellectual consistence in not advocating the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco that kill 500,000 a year, Bill has challenged me to support the legalization of potentially fatal drugs, such as heroin, and cocaine. I have just withheld my decision. I am leaning against legalization, based on the above and several other historic experiences. The Swiss learned to decrease overdose and HIV deaths. We should be asking them how to do what they do.

Marijuana kills dozens of people a year, all by car crashes, murders of competitors (that one is caused by the lawyer and his laws). It itself kills no one to my knowledge. So the decision to legalize marijuana is not difficult, one tenth as addictive as tobacco and alcohol, 10,000 times less fatal (50 deaths versus 500,000 a year). Prohibition is funding the enemies of the nation, Iranian collaborating drug cartels, building tunnels for terrorists, and Taliban, to fund the killing of our warriors. I consider prohibitionists to be internal enemies, promulgating the funding of the enemy. Eventually, they will have enough money to build a nuclear weapon delivered by tunnel and trucked to NYC.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 30, 2014 9:47:37 PM


You must have been so pleased that someone not in your echo chamber actually read your post, much less commented. Don't see many (any?) comments there other than DAB's for quite some time.

Posted by: Skeptical | Mar 30, 2014 10:01:43 PM



Here is very recent one (two weeks ago) about drug use in Burma. Now, do I think that the USA is in any danger of becoming Burma tomorrow? No. But anyone who thinks that drug legalization automatically leads to some hippie nirvana commune of peace and love has their heads buried in the sand. Legalization of marijuana in and of itself doesn't bother me particularity--I've never bought the idea it is a "gateway drug"--but I do worry about the attitude behind it. I fret that drug legalization itself is a form of crack that America can get addicted to. Look what has happened with big Pharma and "prescription" drugs.

@Bill. I do not want to argue that point now...suffice it to say I do not buy the thesis that crime is down because of Draconian laws. Coincidence is not equal to causation and all that. As for your point about emotion @ C&C vs here...fair enough. Maybe there is simply so much I can take.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 30, 2014 10:55:07 PM

The opiate addiction rate in Vietnam soldiers dropped markedly just upon stepping foot back in the USA. No treatment, no rehab, just the fear of arrest. I have not yet concluded heroin and cocaine should be included in the Adult Pleasure License.

However, if it ever gets public support I have no hesitation executing 10,000 dealers a year to save 500,000 addicts from lung cancer and liver failure. And on the demand side, giving 20 lashes (cheap but sure punishment) to all caught using or having urines positive for metabolites. None of these addicts dies for under $250,000, so this is money from my pocket.

You know the way the government forced banks to lend to crack head minority not qualified for a mortgage, the government is mandating no pain go under-treated or face elder abuse charges, not covered by medical malpractice insurance. So thank the lawyer for the opiates flooding our residences an being taken from grandma by her high school grandkids.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 31, 2014 12:08:21 AM

I don't think that anyone should be subject to imprisonment for voluntarily using a controlled substance or possessing it for personal use. On the other hand, I think that it is legitimate for the government to impose reasonable restrictions on the importation, sale, and distribution of drugs, including outright prohibition in the case of the most dangerous ones, and I think it is appropriate to back up those reasonable restrictions with criminal sanctions. But the restrictions should be based on the actual danger posed by the drug. Heroin, for instance, is extremely dangerous and its sale and distribution should be strictly controlled or even banned outright. Something like marijuana, on the other hand, is relatively harmless, and its sale and distribution should be regulated more like alcohol or tobacco. But as a matter of policy, I don't think the government should put anyone in prison just for using a controlled substance.

Posted by: C.E. | Mar 31, 2014 1:19:43 AM


500,000 deaths a year, all rough. How muchmore dangerous can highly addictive substances get, alcohol and tobacco? What do you think of the stupidity ofthe lawyer banning a drug that kills 50 people, while allowing the advertising of two others 10 times more addictive, that kill 10,000 times more people a year?

Can you think of any story from The Twilight Zone more unbelievable or more stupid?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 31, 2014 3:33:41 AM

C.E. --

Thank you for producing a rarity in these parts: A prompt, direct, thoughtful answer that sticks to substance about the issue and eschews personal references.

Skeptical --

Perhaps you could learn something from C.E.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 31, 2014 7:31:13 AM

Other countries should follow Portugal's actions and decriminalize drugs and use a public health approach instead. Portugal's success carefully evaluated over the last 10 years has been remarkable: http://www.bloomberg.com/video/does-decriminalizing-all-drugs-make-sense-k8HGr3mFTp~mmQ5qBJr4AQ.html

A corrections and criminal justice approach to drug addiction is unsustainable and makes our communities less safe.

Posted by: Lorenn Walker | Mar 31, 2014 2:51:16 PM

Lorenn Walker --

"A corrections and criminal justice approach to drug addiction is unsustainable and makes our communities less safe."

I was wondering if you might be willing to provide documentation for the proposition that it has made communities "less safe." I expect such documentation will be hard to come by, since, in fact, communities are NOT less safe. They are considerably more safe than they were a generation ago, and safer than at any time since the Baby Boomers were in grade school.

Still, if you have proof, I'll be eager to see it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 31, 2014 10:55:34 PM

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