As Heroin and Cocaine Deaths Soar, Obama Wants 'Non-Violent Drug Offenders' Out of Prison

By Susan Jones | July 16, 2015 | 11:28am EDT
President Barack Obama began his visit to Oklahoma at the Choctaw Nation, an Indian reservation, on July 15, 2015, and he's ending it at a federal prison on July 16. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

( - As the number of heroin and cocaine deaths escalate in this country, President Obama is making the case that "non-violent drug offenders" should not serve long prison sentences -- if they serve time at all.

"There are a lot of folks who belong in prison," President Obama told the NAACP this week. He specifically mentioned "murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, and drug kingpins -- we need some of those folks behind bars."

But, he added, "If you're a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That's disproportionate to the price that should be paid."

To emphasize his point, Obama on Monday commuted the prison sentences of 46 people, many of them cocaine or crack dealers, because "their punishments didn't fit the crime," he tweeted. Obama said "nearly all" of those individuals would have received shorter sentences if they had been convicted of the same crime today.

But as Obama calls for "criminal justice reform" that would send "low-level" drug offenders to drug courts and treatment programs instead of prison, the poison they peddle is taking a bigger and bigger toll on Americans.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug poisoning (overdose) is the number-one cause of injury-related death in the United States, with 43,982 deaths occurring in 2013, a 6 percent increase from 2012.

The number of drug-poisoning deaths involving opioid analgesics (prescription pain-killers) was 16,235 in 2013, a 1 percent increase over 2012; overdose deaths involving heroin totaled 8,260 in 2013, a whopping 39 percent increase from 2012; and there were 4,944 cocaine overdoses in 2013, up 12 percent from 2012.  

While prescription drugs can be legally purchased, it is still illegal to possess or distribute heroin and cocaine, drugs that rob parents of their children, or vice versa, as the CDC numbers indicate.

Nevertheless, Obama told the NAACP that locking up "low-level drug dealers" is robbing the nation of men and women "who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children's lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense."

(Of course, the same could be said of the many thousands of people who die from the heroin and cocaine they buy from "low-level" dealers. Had they lived, many of those people could also be workers and taxpayers, involved in their children's lives, etc.)

President Obama on Thursday will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. In Oklahoma today, he will urge Congress to help him "reform" the criminal justice system, by doing away with mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and setting up drug courts, for example.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch told the NAACP this week that she and President Obama want to work with Congress to make the criminal justice system "more efficient, more effective and more fair."

"Nowhere are these efforts more vital than in our work with young people -- because they are the ones whose entire lives can be forever altered when the criminal justice system ensnares them or their parents," Lynch said in her prepared remarks.

"It's why we need to renew our focus on alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment and probation programs that can help keep young people and their parents out of jail and on the right track."

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