North Carolina’s prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill. Incarcerating the mentally ill is ineffective and inefficient, because it increases their isolation without addressing their underlying problems. Appropriately responding to mental health issues with treatment will keep our communities safer by seeking remedies for the underlying psychiatric issues that drive antisocial behaviors.
Perhaps the most immediate example of this issue is the current opioid epidemic. North Carolina, like the rest of the country, is in the midst of a public health crisis due to prescription opioid and heroin abuse.
The Judicial Branch has joined the fight against drug overdose and opioid addiction, which claimed the lives of almost 1,500 North Carolinians just last year. This epidemic has hit our state hard, and the statistics are staggering. Drug overdose deaths have increased by 350% since 1999. Heroin-related deaths have increased by 884% since 2010. And drug overdoses now cause more deaths than either firearms or motor vehicle accidents, and result in over 20,000 ER visits per year. According to a CBS report, four North Carolina towns— Wilmington, Fayetteville, Hickory, and Jacksonville—are among the nation’s top 20 areas that have been hardest hit by the opioid abuse epidemic. Many of you have witnessed the tragic consequences of this epidemic in your local communities. Now, the legal community must do its part to address this crisis…
Our communities have too much at stake to remain passive in the face of this growing threat. Let’s do all that we can to protect all North Carolinians from drug overdoses and prescription drug abuse.”
Response to this crisis must come from all sectors, including the criminal justice system, which has the authority to require treatment in a way that the medical system cannot. Decades of tough-on-crime practices employed by the “war on drugs” have led to a system that criminalizes addiction. Mandatory minimums intended to target large-scale drug dealers serve to compound this problem.
NC currently imposes mandatory minimum sentencing for any type of heroin mixture, without allowing any room for judicial discretion. While the law’s intended purpose is to target large scare drug traffickers, mandatory minimums result in imposing harsh prison sentences on a person possessing as few as five pharmaceutical opiates. The result, as stated by the North Carolina Supreme Court, is that “small scale dealers and end users have been swept in by the broad language of the statute.” State v. Ellison (2013).
NC’s legal system needs to make a concerted effort to ensure that sentences for drug possession are proportional and evidence-based. Saddling individuals with a lifelong criminal record for possessing a handful of pills is counterproductive, and ultimately increases the problems of overcrowded prisons and untreated addiction.