For the first time since deaths from drug overdose began to occur at an alarming rate, there seems to be an almost universal appetite for identifying the best ways to address the addiction, petty crime and drug trafficking that are the result of Maine’s heroin epidemic.

Imposing longer sentences for drug crimes, however, should not be on that list. With so many evidence-based practices available to solve the drug crisis, there is no reason to return to a method that has been proven not to work.

L.D. 1541, now before the Legislature, would increase punishments and set mandatory minimums for importing into the state most illegal drugs. It would also create a new crime – aggravated illegal importation – with a sentence of up to 30 years in prison for people who import larger quantities or use a minor to assist in the importation.

Importation is a particularly hard crime to prove, and Maine already has sufficiently harsh penalties for drug possession and trafficking, even in regard to relatively small amounts. Two grams or more of heroin carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, while 6 grams or more has a 30-year maximum. Prosecutors have other, better tools for punishing drug dealers.

More than that, though, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is to alleviate the suffering caused by the drug crisis and to make our communities safer.

Longer prison sentences satisfy the understandable desire to punish those who are profiting off addiction. For some, unfortunately, tough-on-crime pronouncements also are a way to prove how seriously they take this issue.

But there is no proof that putting away a drug dealer for a long time makes it any less likely that another one will take his place. Increased sentences will only put more people behind bars, and leave Maine taxpayers on the hook for the bill – at a cost of about $56,000 per year per inmate – well after other, better initiatives have, with any luck, put the heroin epidemic to rest.

That’s clearly what happened in the drug crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when harsh sentences and mandatory minimums served only to fill prisons and, often, trap nonviolent and low-level offenders in the penal system, making recidivism all the more likely.

There are a lot of great ideas floating around Augusta, and they are coming from both sides of the aisle. Increasing access to medication-assisted drug treatment, supporting recovery services in Maine’s county jails and drug education in its schools, and stemming the overprescription of opioid painkillers are just a few of the initiatives that experience shows can make real headway in ending a drug crisis.

The Legislature should focus on those proposals and leave failed ideas in the past.


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