Nearly 100 Civil Rights, Policy Organizations Urge Congress to Reject Biden’s Harmful Sentencing Proposal
Media Contact: Ambar Mentor-Truppa [email protected]
Letter highlights harm to people of color, advocates for public health approach
Washington, DC — Today, nearly 100 leading civil rights organizations, community organizers, and policy groups issued a joint letter to congressional leaders opposing President Biden’s proposal to permanently classify fentanyl-related substances (FRS) as Schedule I drugs. A permanent classification would worsen racial inequities in the criminal justice system while failing to reduce overdose deaths or promote public safety.
The classwide scheduling of FRS has been in effect since 2018, but overdose deaths have continued to rise, reaching record heights this past year. People of color, meanwhile, have been disproportionately harmed by the classification’s harsher sentencing laws, which punish FRS up to four times greater than fentanyl despite the fact that FRS is of equal or lesser potency. By pushing to make this classification permanent, President Biden is ignoring evidence showing that strategies rooted in public health, not criminalization, are needed to reduce overdoses.
The coalition calls on Congress to let the class wide scheduling policy expire and focus on passing public health solutions, like expanding access to harm reduction and treatment.
Signatories to the letter include Drug Policy Alliance, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, The Sentencing Project, Vera Institute of Justice, and Fair and Just Prosecution.
“The overall ‘solution’ captured in the Biden proposal is that of criminalization instead of being public-health oriented,” said Maritza Perez, Director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “This is despite the fact that we know the conditions created by criminalization lead to overdose. In fact, the proposal contains zero provisions addressing harm reduction and expanded access to treatment for those who want and need it. This is shameful at a time when our country is facing record overdose rates. It must also be underscored that the Biden proposal is creating a dangerous precedent for a radical new approach to drug scheduling and drug sentencing.”
“After the last several years of national conversation on the deep racial disparities built into the American criminal-legal system, it is frustrating that the Biden administration is repeating the mistakes of the past rather than learning from them. The Biden administration’s proposal further criminalizing fentanyl related substances as the most dangerous without sufficient evidence, made during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when we are witnessing increased overdose rates, will only lead to more people in prisons, suffering, and dying,” said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Congress must let the temporary scheduling expire and pass legislation that will direct resources to help people and communities most impacted by substance abuse, rather than continuing to criminalize a public health crisis.”
“We all want a solution to the opioid crisis but more criminalization is not the answer,” said Laura Pitter, Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time to treat this urgent situation as the public health problem that it is, and instead of more arrests, provide people with the help and treatment that they need.”
“We strongly support efforts to address the ongoing overdose crisis, and believe that this can be done without increasing our reliance on mass incarceration and deepening existing racial inequality,” said Kara Gotsch, Deputy Director at The Sentencing Project. “If Congress and the Biden administration grant the Drug Enforcement Administration unilateral authority to schedule thousands of fentanyl-related substances, the country will continue to repeat the mistakes of the Drug War rather than pursue a more just future.”
“The overdose crisis is a public health crisis, and Congress must treat it as such,” said Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice. “With overdose deaths climbing year after year, it is abundantly clear that the current arrest-and-sentence approach that the Biden administration wants to make permanent, which disproportionately harms Black and Latinx people, has been an abysmal failure. Congress has an obligation to allow the temporary Class I scheduling of all FRS to expire and focus on strategies that are proven to save lives, including increasing access to medication, treatment, and prevention services.”
“Handcuffs and prison cells don’t prevent overdoses or save lives,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “The science is clear: communities need harm reduction services and treatment resources — not more criminalization. We urge the Biden administration and Congress to not repeat the mistakes of past decades and the failed War on Drugs. Current laws provide ample penalties to respond to serious criminal behavior surrounding fentanyl and its analogues; classifying all fentanyl analogues as schedule I drugs is simply not necessary and will only deepen racial disparities and do nothing to make our communities healthier and safer.”
About the Drug Policy Alliance – The Drug Policy Alliance envisions a just society in which the use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, in which people are no longer punished for what they put into their own bodies but only for crimes committed against others, and in which the fears, prejudices and punitive prohibitions of today are no more.
About The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 230 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.
About Human Rights Watch – Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization that monitors human rights violations in more than 90 countries, including the United States. We investigate abuses, expose the facts related to those abuses, and advocate that those with power respect rights and secure justice. To learn more about Human Rights Watch’s work, visit www.hrw.org
About The Sentencing Project – The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice. Our policy priorities envision the full inclusion in society of people with criminal records and an end to extreme punishments. Our aim is to center the leadership, voices, vision, and experience of those directly affected by mass incarceration to make the rationale for systemic change vivid, credible and compelling.
About the Vera Institute of Justice – The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.
About Fair and Just Prosecution – Fair and Just Prosecution is a national network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate criminal justice reforms. To learn more about FJP’s work, visit www.fairandjustprosecution.org.