Dear Jeff Sessions, Having a Mental Illness Is a Not a Crime

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated his intent to roll back one of the Obama administration’s criminal justice reforms that allowed low-level drug users to avoid unfair, overly lengthy prison sentences. The directive in 2013 kept the number of drugs out of the equation when arresting a nonviolent offender.

Now, Sessions has other ideas:

“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense…” -Jeff Sessions in a memo from May 10.

Essentially, he wants the strictest charges possible and to bring back the “mandatory minimum” amount of time in prison for a drug charge. This move shows us that rather than spend time and money on creating useful policies that focus on treatment or even prevention, Sessions actively wants to arrest more people and subject them to longer prison sentences.

The policy change has received justifiable criticism:

“The Justice Department’s expected shift to prosecuting and incarcerating more offenders, including low-level and drug offenders, is an ineffective way to protect public safety… Decades of experience shows we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of America’s drug problem. Instead, we must direct resources to treatment and to specifically combatting violent crime. This will help law enforcement do our jobs better.” – Brett Tolman, a U.S. Attorney for Utah under President George W. Bush, on Sessions’ policy change

America’s incarceration problem is only going to worsen from this, and we already know that it will disproportionately affect minorities and men, but Tolman hints at another consequence that we will likely see: the effect this change may have on those struggling with addiction.

What Sessions and many others in our society don’t seem to realize is that substance abuse is a mental illness. Our country has struggled with a long history of criminalizing drug use, despite evidence that it doesn’t help alleviate the problem. (The prison system, too, has in general been proven to cause or worsen mental health conditions; even if prisoners have no access to drugs while incarcerated, 7.9 million people in the U.S. grapple with another disorder on top of their substance abuse, and the other conditions may not be treated adequately in prison either.)

There’s a lot of evidence pointing to addiction being a disease. Firstly, people can be more susceptible to addiction due to hereditary or genetic factors as well as environmental or situational ones. The condition, which is characterized by a compulsion or impulse to repeat the damaging behavior of drug usage while often not admitting that it is harmful, mirrors other mental illnesses in more ways than the origin: the complete denial of negative effects, or the lack of regard for them, is similar to what happens with conditions such as eating disorders and other self-harm behaviors. Finally, like other conditions, substance abuse physically changes the brain due to the disruptions and compromises in the brain’s reward systems and imbalances among the neurotransmitters.

The GOP already threatened mental illness treatment with their exclusive health care bill. Now, aside from worsening conditions or preventing patients from recovering by putting them in prison, requiring harsher sentences for drug charges could further stain the way society at large views addicts, putting them at an even greater disadvantage.

“This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety. Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.” – Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance

Clearly, by having a policy that labels addiction as a crime rather than an illness, Sessions is further ingraining in our society the idea that patients should not be treated and rehabilitated, but incarcerated — it’s yet another way the current administration may send our country spiraling backward.

Isn’t it supposed to be called the “justice” system?

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Emily Rose Thorne
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Emily Rose is a 17-year-old writer and musician from Athens, Georgia. This fall, she will attend Mercer University to double major in Journalism and Political Science. She is currently a staff writer for both Affinity Magazine and Women's Republic as well as an intern at Step Up Magazine and contributor for Rantt. She also frequently posts on Medium, where editors requested to add her as a writer for Politics Means, and on Vocal, where her writing has been selected as a Staff Pick. She has contributed to the Genetic Literacy Project and Sprout Literary Magazine. Contact her at emilyrosethorne6@gmail.com or her website, emilyrosethorne.com.

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