Harm Reduction and the 21st Century Prosecutor

“Decriminalization was very important. It introduced coherency into our system. It respects the dignity of people who use drugs.” – João Goulão, General Director, Serviço de Intervenção nos Comportamentos Aditivos e nas Dependências (SICAD), Portuguese Ministry of Health

It’s been almost 20 years since Portugal took the historic step to decriminalize all personal drug use and instead implement public health models to address a crisis that caused a staggering number of deaths among people who used drugs. Since that momentous decision, they have seen an 80% decrease in overdose deaths and a significant uptick in people entering treatment. In comparison, today — and every day — an average of 200 Americans will die of an overdose. This is our reality, but it doesn’t have to be the case.

Communities across the United States ravaged by the overdose crisis are increasingly questioning the criminal justice responses that have dominated drug policy and led to nothing more than cycles of incarceration and harm. And a new generation of prosecutors is hearing, and responding to, these concerns. From New York to Missouri, Texas to Washington State, elected prosecutors are rethinking our response to substance use and advancing drug reforms that not only shrink the footprint of our justice system, but also save lives in the process. With the power to implement alternatives to conviction and incarceration in their offices, and bully pulpits to destigmatize drug use and advocate for harm reduction interventions in their communities, elected prosecutors can finally turn the tide on our failed war on drugs.

“We are in the midst of an overdose crisis and cannot sit by and let people die when there are proven interventions that can save lives and help people get into treatment.” – Kings County (Brooklyn), NY District Attorney Eric Gonzalez

FJP’s newest “Issues at a Glance” brief is a guide to better understand harm reduction principles and implement practices that center human dignity and promote the health and well-being of individuals who use drugs. In particular, the brief outlines:

  • The underlying principles of harm reduction, an approach that emphasizes meeting people where they are and mitigating the harms associated with drug use;
  • The potential for harm reduction and public health strategies to help limit drug-related deaths, the spread of infectious diseases and other concerns associated with problematic drug use;
  • Strategies that promote low-barrier access to treatment and aim to reduce problematic drug use; and
  • Examples of innovations in harm reduction practices at several stages of the justice system, as well as initiatives spearheaded by community responses — a preferable starting point for engagement.

“Harm reduction models — from needle exchanges to overdose prevention sites — are used the world over and have been proven to be cost-effective, and more importantly to save lives.” – Chittenden County (Burlington, VT) State’s Attorney Sarah George

For far too long, the criminalization and stigma of drug use has pushed people into the shadows and prevented us from truly seeing them with empathy and compassion. Now we have an opportunity to follow Portugal’s lead and choose a new path that begins with harm reduction and embraces a public health response that is more humane, more effective and more in line with successful outcomes experienced in other countries.

To read more about these and other justice system reforms being advanced by new and bold elected prosecutors, visit FJP’s website and also read our 21 Principles for 21st Century Prosecutors.

Fair and Just Prosecution: A New Vision for the 21st Century

Local prosecutors exercise tremendous control over who comes into the justice system, what charges they face, and the trajectory of their case. Fair and Just Prosecution: A New Vision for the 21st Century” promotes a justice system grounded in fairness, equity & compassion.

Fair and Just Prosecution

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Fair and Just Prosecution is a national network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate criminal justice reforms.

Fair and Just Prosecution: A New Vision for the 21st Century

Local prosecutors exercise tremendous control over who comes into the justice system, what charges they face, and the trajectory of their case. Fair and Just Prosecution: A New Vision for the 21st Century” promotes a justice system grounded in fairness, equity & compassion.

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