Two weeks after a series of hearings on mandatory-minimum sentencing, a House Judiciary subpanel on Tuesday will meet with officials to discuss what members say is a growing heroin epidemic in America.
Several proposed bills under consideration in both chambers would establish interagency task forces for heroin and opiate matters. Crime Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner has also introduced a bill that would give federal money to states for education, prevention, and treatment efforts.
But there has been no formal announcement from the Judiciary Committee as to what legislation — present or future — will be included in its criminal-justice-reform initiative. A late June listening session organized by the committee, an aide said, considered all proposed legislation from lawmakers, a dozen of whom presented.
Congress and the administration both seem to recognize the heroin epidemic as a threat to public health and safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a 286 percent increase in overdose deaths since 2010, and the use of heroin has increased among most demographic groups since 2002. The drug is cheaper to obtain than prescription painkillers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and heroin and opiates have many of the same effects on the body.
Angela Pacheco, the first judicial district attorney for Santa Fe, told National Journal that her Tuesday testimony would discuss law-enforcement-assisted diversion, a community-policing strategy in which officers who know their neighborhoods can direct individuals with addictions to a treatment program instead of arresting them. Pacheco says this not only saves governments money, but promotes compassion.
“It’s saving lives and allowing the person to reclaim their integrity,” she said. “This is not for everyone. It’s for some people, and for the people that it works, it saves their lives and makes them into productive members of the community.”
Also under review by the Judiciary Committee are the issues of over-criminalization, criminal procedures, policing strategies, and civil-asset forfeiture.
“Criminal justice is about punishing law-breakers, protecting the innocent, the fair administration of justice, and fiscal responsibility in a manner that is responsive to the needs of communities,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Ranking Member John Conyers said in a joint statement.
This blitz on criminal-justice reform isn’t just happening in the Judiciary Committee. While discussing his support of the bipartisan SAFE Justice Act earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner said many people in prison “really don’t need to be there.” And President Obama has spoken out forcefully on reform, saying, “I don’t think that the criminal-justice system is obviously the sole source of racial tension in this country, or the key institution to resolving the opportunity gap. But I think it is a part of the broader set of challenges that we face in creating a more perfect union.”
Elsewhere Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will begin a markup on the Protecting Our Infants Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark, a bill that seeks to prevent prenatal opioid abuse and neonatal abstinence syndrome. A committee review of the Stop Overdose Stat Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, is still in the review process.
Two of Tuesday’s witnesses are top administration officials: Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli and Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley. Nancy Parr, the commonwealth’s attorney for Chesapeake, Virginia, is also scheduled to testify.
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