Panel: Less shame, more empathy needed for drug offenders

justice, court

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah panel suggests state lawmakers rethink the way prosecutors handle drug-related cases and take a more compassionate approach toward offenders.

One suggestion from Rep. Paul Ray, a member of the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force, on Monday was directing prosecutors to withhold immediate criminal charges and even drop cases entirely if offenders complete a treatment program.

The meeting comes after Brian Besser of Utah’s Drug Enforcement Administration said at a recent opioid conference that shame is the biggest obstacle keeping residents from seeking treatment for addiction, KSL-TV reported .

Utah has been getting better at taking a therapeutic approach instead of shame-based prosecution, said Will Carlson, a Salt Lake County deputy district attorney.

He thinks looking at drug-related cases as a public health issue will have a positive impact, he said.

He cited a case from the 1990s where a group of men were charged with having a sex with each other in Salt Lake County park. Instead of putting the men in jail, the county formed a program that required them to get tested for sexually transmitted infections and take a course on healthy ways to express themselves in exchange for guilty pleas.

In terms of drug-related cases, Utah began reducing penalties for many drug crimes, including possession in 2015, said Utah Sentencing Commission Director Marshall Thompson.

“Maybe it’s just a cultural shift we all need to focus on,” he said.

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