An Indiana prosecutor is taking exception to the increasingly bipartisan efforts to reform America’s brutal criminal justice system—actually boasting that he’s “proudly overcrowding our prisons,” in a campaign ad obtained by Reason.
As Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, other people included on the flier are a man who got 40 years for breaking into an apartment and stealing $52 dollars from a woman’s purse (he got the extra 20 years for reportedly being a habitual offender). Another mug shot in Cooper’s ad shows Mike Daprile, who got 40 years in prison for meth. Claiming Daprile was a large-scale dealer who imported meth from Mexico, Cooper insists, “He deserved every bit of his 40 years.”
In the past few years, Cooper has turned his attention to the heroin epidemic, a battle for which he unsurprisingly envisions a heavy-handed approach by law-enforcement.
“Four or five years ago myself and officers who do this noticed that heroin was making a comeback,” he says. “You started having kids dying from heroin overdoses. We went after dealers, taking their money and their product off the streets.”
For people who use heroin, Cooper favors pushing them to get help by way of the courts.
“The overwhelming majority of people in substance abuse treatment all got there through run-ins with the criminal justice system,” he tells us. “We try to get them while they’re low-level users, before they’re in the morgue or high-level dealers.”
Cooper says his county has embraced a compassionate approach to heroin addiction, sending users to drug courts while cracking down on dealers. But in many cases, dealers are also users, who rely on low-level dealing to maintain their habit. Cooper counters that low-level dealers tend to get sentences of one or two years, during which time they go through a program called “Purposeful Incarceration,” in which they undergo intensive therapy.
To be clear, “I’m proud of putting some drug dealers in prison too,” he insists. “But if we can get them off the drugs we’re willing to trade some of those for low-level ones we can attempt to rehabilitate.”
Although drug courts are largely seen as more compassionate than lengthy jail sentences, they’re also problematic.
“Drug courts aren’t treatment courts, they’re anti-treatment courts,” Daniel Abrahamsson, senior legal advisor of the Drug Policy Alliance, tells The Influence. “They do a disservice to clients and taxpayers who would all be better served supporting community-based treatment programs.”
Drug courts give judges power to make medical decisions they’re not qualified to make; they rely on an abstinence-only approach that many addiction specialists disavow; and they can be counterproductively coercive—even failing a marijuana test can land a participant in jail, an odd tactic for addressing addiction, marked as it is by relapse.
“Not only will some drug court participants spend more days in jail while in drug court than if they had been conventionally sentenced, but participants deemed “failures” may actually face longer sentences than those who did not enter drug court in the first place (often because they lost the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge),” the Drug Policy Alliance notes in a report.
So perhaps, as Cooper wishes, the era of “overcrowding prisons” will be with us for some time to come.