In Appalachian states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, the tough-on-crime policy announced Friday by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions runs counter to a recent emphasis on treatment and less prison time for low-level drug offenders.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul strongly opposed the Department of Justice directive, which reverses an Obama-era policy that prescribed leniency for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.
"We should treat our nation's drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' problem," Paul said in a statement released shortly after Session's announcement.
Sessions argued that a spike in violence in some big cities and the nation's opioid epidemic call for a return to harsher prison sentences. The memo announced Friday would urge U.S. attorneys to charge steeper crimes that would trigger long mandatory prison sentences, including for drug offenders.
Kentucky and West Virginia have some of the highest rates of drug abuse overdose deaths in the country. Last year, 864 people died of overdose deaths in West Virginia. Both states saw a double digit percentage increase in the overdose death rate between 2014 and 2015.
Former U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey, who was the top federal prosecutor for the eastern half of Kentucky, said he was concerned that a multifaceted approach emphasizing prevention and treatment was being abandoned by the Trump administration.
"There was a real momentum for a time, and I think it's safe to say it's dead now, toward a broader criminal justice reform effort, and that was a bipartisan effort," Harvey said. He said the Obama administration embraced that philosophy and many conservative lawmakers, such as Sen. Paul, were also on board.
"In terms of the drug problem, my philosophy was pretty simple: For people who were addicts, that's an illness, and addicts needed treatment beds, and professional drug dealers needed prison beds," Harvey said.
However, Harvey said he doesn't think the move will create a "sea change" in how federal drug cases are handled in Kentucky because most low-level offenders are handled by state prosecutors rather than in federal court.
Kentucky in recent years has enacted laws that increased prison substance abuse treatment and modified sentences for certain drug offenses.
Longtime eastern Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, a Republican, said in a statement Friday that he "strongly supports the use of drug courts and other evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders."
West Virginia has also seen the value in a broader approach to drug abuse, said Jim Johnson, the drug control policy director for the city of Huntington. Johnson, a former police chief, said the opioid scourge has introduced a new kind of addict: those who became hooked after receiving a prescription for pain.
"Now we're dealing with the 28-year-old mother who used to jog 5 miles a morning who sprained her knee, or the coal miner in Appalachia who hurt his back," Johnson said.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder in a 2013 memo sought less harsh sentences for low-level offenders who didn't belong to a trafficking organization or gang. Harvey said the intent was to give federal judges more flexibility in sentencing and reduce prison overcrowding. Sessions' move Friday nullified that memo.
Johnson and Harvey said federal prosecutors should be focused on large-scale drug trafficking organizations and cartels, and they said they see signs that the Justice Department under Sessions would aggressively pursue those cases.
But Johnson said addiction must also be addressed, and reduced, through treatment and rehabilitation.
"I understand what they're saying, and everybody wants the cartels broken up in Mexico," he said. "But if we don't lower the demand, there's always going to be a supply, because of the amount of money, we're talking billions and billions of dollars."