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Why drug possession charges create inequality

In South Carolina and most of the United States, the serious consequences associated with possession of controlled substances extend beyond imprisonment, probation and fines. For many defendants convicted of drug charges, their sentences turn into modern-day scarlet letters upon release.

Immigrants and minorities tend to be disproportionately affected by drug arrests and convictions. According to a recent research study published in the American Journal of Public Health, minorities convicted of drug crimes often end up having limited access to certain health and education benefits, not to mention the difficulties they face when seeking employment opportunities.

Researchers from the University of San Francisco argue that lowering drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors could help reduce the negative impact that minorities face in these situations. In California, for example, a statewide program to reduce the severity of possession offenses has resulted in lower arrest figures among minorities.

The legal advantages of treating drug possession as a misdemeanor start at the booking process; suspects are more likely to get reasonable bail, which also makes it easier to work on their defense strategy. In South Carolina and other jurisdictions, felony possession charges are often enhanced with intent to distribute in an automatic fashion, and this is something less likely to happen with misdemeanors. Ideally, legislators throughout the country will soon become interested in the program in the Golden State, a jurisdiction where prison overcrowding turned into a public health issue.

When possession is handled as a misdemeanor drug charge, defendants may have an easier time holding on to their jobs and entering a drug diversion program in lieu of serving a jail sentence. In general, criminal defense attorneys may have better chances of arguing for a dismissal of misdemeanor charges, and prosecutors might dedicate less resources to pursuing these lesser offenses.

Source: Reuters, "Reducing drug possession penalties may have impact on health inequalities", Carolyn Crist, 07/13/2018.

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