Nearly 100 Civil Rights, Policy Organizations Urge Congress to Reject Biden’s Harmful Sentencing Proposal

Press Release October 21, 2021
Media Contact

Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
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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 classwide 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, Human Rights Watch, Vera Institute of Justice, The Sentencing Project, 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.” 

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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