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Race, Sentencing Reform and the Opioid Epidemic

posted on Wed, Apr 27 2016 1:52 pm by Chris Hill

Recently, the National Urban League issued a press release asking Congress to hold off voting on a couple of criminal justice reform bills. One of those bills is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (Act). The Act presents modern day solutions for draconian practices currently used in our criminal courts. Among other things, it reduces mandatory minimums for drug offenses and does so retroactively. 

Criminal justice reform is an idea that is embraced by both conservative and liberal lawmakers. The Urban League, however, states that it wants to keep Congress from voting until it receives racial impact data from the Sentencing Commission. This creates an interesting dilemma.

The Urban league is asking for a slowdown because it is concerned that the reforms will simply continue the trend of disproportionate sentences and punishments in the federal system for minorities. While the concern is reasonable, it is important from a public health perspective to hope that a resolution can come sooner rather than later.

Evidence shows that treatment, not prison time, is the effective way to address drug addiction. In fact, one study shows that incarceration is linked to the likelihood of opioid overdoses of former inmates soon after their release. While the disproportionality of race and punishment is always a problem, we also have real solutions for tackling opioid drug use and overdose ― solutions that focus on protecting health and preventing injury and mortality.

Some of these include:

  • Strengthening Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs and ensuring that they’re used in ways that will improve patient and public health;
  • Developing and strengthening “Good Samaritan” laws that permit people to report overdose without fear of arrest;
  • Creating training programs for health care providers so they can recognize the signs of opioid abuse and provide assistance to the patient in front of them;
  • Making it easier for medical providers to prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder; and
  • Ensuring that naloxone, the overdose reversal medication, is widely available.


All of these solutions should be brought to bear as we look at race and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Any disproportionality in increased sentencing or lack of treatment based on race should also be looked at through a public health lens, much in the same way that we are looking at how to address the rampant misuse of opioids. Once the racial impact data is provided to the National Urban League, we need to be as proactive on other harm reduction tactics as we are with those we employ in tackling the opioid epidemic.

When race and drug use become factors in punishment, we should be alarmed. When we have lawmakers looking to end mass incarceration and look more towards treatment, we should be aware of what already works.

This blog was prepared by Chris Hill, JD, Health Law Fellow at the Network for Public Health Law – Southeastern Region at the National Health Law Program.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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