How Prosecutors Can Help End the Drug War

Johnny Osborn
Deputy District Attorney
Albuquerque, NM

When I was in law school, I met my friend Jeremy. He had started law school after losing his teaching job for disclosing to his principal that he smoked marijuana to feel better. He has a terrible auto-immune disease that causes his bones to fuse together. After he lost his job, he wanted justice and decided to become a lawyer. That was the first time I realized something was wrong. Why would a master’s-level teacher lose his job over $5 worth of marijuana that was consumed in the privacy of his house and outside the presence of children?

As I started prosecuting drug crimes, I saw the extent of disproportionate sentences. Our first-degree drug trafficking charge for a second-time offender can result in 18 years in prison — 12 years minimum. If you kill somebody in New Mexico on second-degree murder, it’s 15 years max. I have seen a few murderers get less prison time than people who sold $10 worth of crack to an undercover cop.

There’s something manifestly unjust in how we’re enforcing these laws. We’re not as bad as some states are in terms of discriminatory policing, but we are a majority minority state. We have a higher percentage of Native Americans than most other states. Virtually every one of my defendants is Hispanic.

One way to keep drug defendants out of jail and prison is through diversion programs. My entire goal with diversion is to prevent people from ever coming back into the criminal justice system. Most states have limited resources, so if we’re spending time prosecuting something that should be a health issue, we don’t have the resources to process something that is a public safety issue.

The biggest effect of diversion that I see is we’re showing we can address certain issues outside of the traditional system. We have people walking up to the police and saying, “I hear you have a program. Can you help me?” Diversion is re-establishing trust between law enforcement and the community. We’re not there yet — we’ve still got 50 years to work through — but we’re all in this together.

For people who commit addiction-related crimes in New Mexico, we only have four or five state-sponsored treatment centers. Currently, someone sitting in custody will wait six to eight months to get to an inpatient treatment center. Outside of custody there really isn’t much intensive outpatient treatment. We’re one of the states that has the fewest resources when it comes to treatment. Anecdotally, about 95% of our crime involves substance use disorder, but there’s no place for people to get help. I joined LEAP because I want to help ensure my community has access to treatment and the opportunity to succeed.

Deputy District Attorney Johnn Osborn of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is changing the way drug cases are prosecuted in the Second Judicial District. He’s a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of prosecutors, judges, police, and other criminal justice professionals working on solutions to pressing public safety issues.

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