US Prosecutors Flock To Europe To Observe Harm Reduction Policies In Action

By Victoria Kim 05/17/19
The large group of prosecutors are seeking inspiration for how to reform criminal justice policy in the US.
US prosecutors in Europe

This month, prosecutors from around the United States are touring Europe to observe the impact of policies toward drug use, and crime in general, that focus on harm reduction rather than a punitive approach, Marijuana Moment reports.

“Elected prosecutors around the country are grappling with how to redefine justice and shrink the footprint of the justice system, while making communities safer and healthier,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP), in a statement. “They are shifting away from punitive criminal justice responses to substance use and mental illness and embracing smart and proven public health solutions.”

Last week, the group—comprised of 20 prosecutors including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby—was in Germany. This week, they are in Portugal.

The two countries have implemented policies on a national level that have not been tried in the U.S. Given the U.S.’s high incarceration rate and evidence of its failure, the prosecutors are seeking inspiration for policies that are working elsewhere. “Germany and Portugal offer powerful lessons on changing these paradigms,” said FJP, which funded the trip.

Germany set out to reduce incarceration by diverting “almost all” people away from prison and focusing on rehabilitation and human dignity. According to the FJP press release, once there the group observed Germany's approach to charging, plea bargaining and incarceration, and its approach to youths in the criminal justice system.

“The evidence is clear that our country’s decades-long approach to incarceration is not working,” said DA Rachael Rollins of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, who is part of the group. “We need to look for innovative solutions to deliver more sensible approaches—and a paradigm shift away from punitive responses—that our communities are demanding.”

In Portugal, the focus is on drug policy. In 2001, the country decriminalized all drugs in response to its own addiction crisis. People caught with less than a 10-day supply of illicit drugs are seen before a “dissuasion commission”—a panel of lawyers or judges, social workers and psychologists—and if deemed to have a drug use problem, they are referred to treatment. If not, they are given a fine or a warning.

Research on Portugal’s policy has illustrated a positive impact on public health—including significant reductions in drug-related deaths, drug use among 15-24-year-olds, the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and the homeless population. Meanwhile, the number of people who receive treatment for substance use disorder are up.

This week while in Portugal, the prosecutors are exploring firsthand the long-term effects of the 18-year-old decriminalization policy. They are meeting with public health officials and “drug policy leaders” including the people who developed the decriminalization policy—as well as police, prosecutors and members of the dissuasion commission.

They are also visiting supervised injection facilities in each country, according to WHYY.

“Among all criminal justice system actors, prosecutors are uniquely positioned to be able to take lessons learned from other countries’ approaches to incarceration and criminalization back to their communities,” said District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, who is on the trip.

“The enormous power of prosecutors to exercise their discretion in ways that ensure outcomes that enhance public safety and reduce recidivism is unparalleled in the criminal justice system.”

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