Speakers offer perspectives on drug law enforcement, reform

Knoxville, Tenn., Jan. 31 — A range of experts gathered Friday at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law to offer their perspectives on whether the criminal justice system needs to change course in its high-profile war on drugs. The discussion was part of the LMU Law Review’s annual symposium, titled “Criminal Justice Reform: Rethinking the War on Drugs.”

E. Shayne Sexton, a criminal court judge in Tennessee’s 8th District, admitted during the symposium that dealing with East Tennessee’s prescription drug epidemic came with quite a learning curve.

Sexton, who serves Campbell, Claiborne, Fentress, Scott and Union counties, said that it was around 2000 or 2001 that he first heard of OxyContin. Until then, substance-related cases had been mostly related to alcohol and marijuana. “I had no idea of its power,” he said of the drug.

And it quickly forced him to shift his thinking about the addicts who started turning up repeatedly in his court, often after a 28-day treatment program failed to break their habit. “I started realizing the problem is not them. It’s me. I had no idea about addiction.”

Sexton’s answer to the area’s burgeoning heroin and opioid problem was a drug court that helped funnel nonviolent addicts into more intensive treatment programs. “We’re much more in tune now” in combating the issue, he said. “We’re using problem-solving instead of corrections … We’ve seen enough failures in the correction side. You can’t correct the addiction out of someone.”

Dr. Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that examines racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system, said there has been a marked difference between how drug epidemics such as crack-cocaine have been approached compared with the heroin and prescription drugs plaguing East Tennessee and other areas.

The latter has received a public health approach instead of a punitive one, “likely because offenders are mostly white,” she said. In contrast, “the response (to crack addiction) is to demonize and punish.”

Keeda Haynes, a Nashville public defender who spent nearly five years in federal prison after becoming ensnared in a drug conspiracy case, offered the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the nation’s harsh drug sentencing laws.

“Your name isn’t even your name anymore. You’re nothing but a number,” she said of her time in prison. The majority of women in prison with her were also there for nonviolent drug offenses, she said.

As a public defender, she says she struggles every day with whether her clients are being punished too harshly, especially when many struggle to keep their homes, jobs and livelihoods after one misstep. “‘Is this justice?’ It’s a question I ask myself every day,” she said.

Other speakers were attorney and ethics expert Cynthia Brown, who gave an economic overview of the war on drugs; Dr. Christy Cowan, who discussed the physiological effect of drugs and drug treatment on the brain; and Campbell University Law Professor Zac Bolitho, who discussed the constitutionality of states’ non-enforcement of federal marijuana laws.

The symposium was named in honor of Sandra C. Ruffin, a founding member of the faculty at LMU Law. Ruffin passed away in 2013, shortly after helping organize the LMU Law Review’s inaugural symposium in spring 2012.

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