Would Tougher Sentences Curb Drug Abuse? One Expert Says 'No'

Aug 17, 2016

Vermont officials have been warning drug users about a potentially dangerous batch of heroin that's been making the rounds over the past week. They say it may be responsible for at least 10 overdoses so far, but no deaths.

New Hampshire has been toughening drug charges against dealers who sell deadly doses and one dealer in Bennington County was charged with second-degree murder last winter.

Robin Weber, director of crime research at the Crime Research Group based in Montpelier, joined VPR to discuss if this approach is effective.

Do tough sentences actually deter drug dealers and drug users?

"Well deterrence as a general principle of punishments requires that criminals believe that there are likely to be costs and that punishment will be swift, certain and severe. And that doesn't happen in our justice system," Weber says. "Drug users use drugs frequently without ever getting caught. The idea that they're going to get caught is not really part of the economics of making that decision to use a drug."

"Let's take the idea of prosecuting somebody for homicide when they provide the drug that causes an overdose," she explains, "this is the prosecutor deciding... that this behavior is so reprehensible that it rises to the level of homicide. So they're acting on the will of the people... to punish this type of behaviors. So it's more about calling the action a crime beyond the crime of just dealing drugs."

Are tougher sentences about something more than prevention?

"The rationale behind our sentencing scheme is retribution, which simply makes us feel good to punish people," says Weber. "You've done something wrong and we are going to punish you. Society is going to take something from you because you have done something against society. The other purposes of punishment are rehabilitation and deterrence is sometimes thrown out there, and in some cases it works but not for drugs."

Where does Vermont stand compared to the rest of the country when it comes to sentencing people for drug crimes?

"Just looking at the sentences for the past few years on heroin use here in Vermont, for low-level users, somebody arrested for a small amount, the most common sentence was straight incarceration but the max in years was only one year," Weber said.

"We tend to have a lot of split sentences, which other states don't generally have," Weber says. "A split sentence is when you spend some time inside the facility and then the rest of the time on probation and it's more of a rehabilitative sentence."

"We also do a lot of deferred sentences for heroin possession," says Weber. "And a deferred sentence is more rehabilitative sentence. The defendant has to behave for a few years and follow the orders of the court, which often includes some kind of assessment on drug counseling and then the conviction goes away. So I would say that Vermont tends to be more rehabilitative in its approaches to sentencing for heroin users and drug users in general."

Can the criminal justice system curb drug abuse?

So is there anything on the criminal justice side of things versus the public health or the treatment side of things that has proved to be effective when it comes to deterring opiate abuse? Weber says, "no."

"It’s [like] speeding: The speed limit is 65 on the freeway here and people go faster than that. They go faster because they know that the likelihood of them getting caught is very slim, and they make that choice to continue to speed," she explains. "So the speeding laws aren't deterring people."

"And most people aren't going out there committing homicide because homicide is illegal. They're committing homicide because it's against their own personal code," Weber says. "So it's not the law that's stopping people from killing each other, it's people's personal code."