First-time drug offenders deserve a second chance

American society continues to struggle with the question of how to fairly and compassionately deal with people addicted to drugs. Even though this is a complicated area of public policy, it’s reassuring to see Republicans and Democrats in Congress looking for spots of consensus that can improve outcomes for low-level, nonviolent offenders who enter the federal criminal justice system.

Under current law, a person found guilty of a federal charge of simple drug possession — meaning a small quantity for personal use, and not for dealing — can request probation if this is the person’s first and only drug offense. After the person successfully completes probation, a federal judge can dismiss the case. The arrest and disposition would still show up in a public records search. However, the law does allow people younger than 21 to get the criminal record expunged.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, U.S. Rep. Nathaniel Moran, R-Tyler, and a group of Democrats and Republicans from across the country want to get rid of the age cap. They’re co-sponsoring legislation named after a former New York district attorney, the Kenneth P. Thompson Begin Again Act, to narrowly amend federal law to remove the age limit for first-time drug offenders to expunge records.


That’s appropriate. A criminal record, even a low-level drug possession charge, can hamper people’s ability to land a job, secure an apartment or obtain public aid. It’s important for offenders to accept responsibility for their actions, but having doors shut in their faces because of a single, relatively small mistake can destabilize lives and drive people away from recovery and back toward crime. First-time drug possession offenders deserve a second chance even if they aren’t minors or young adults.


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The offense wouldn’t show up in public background checks anymore. The U.S. Department of Justice retains a confidential record of the case, only for the purpose of determining whether a person would qualify for an expungement in a future proceeding.

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Getting rid of the age cap for this second chance is so popular that organizations all over the ideological spectrum support it, from the NAACP to the Conservative Political Action Coalition. So do the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Americans should tread carefully when it comes to proposals to decriminalize drug use. A seemingly well-intentioned effort in Oregon to only fine people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs has backfired in Portland, where drug use has burst into the open, according to recent reporting by The New York Times. Overdose numbers are climbing while businesses and residents worry about disorder and aggression from chronic drug users.

The Kenneth P. Thompson Begin Again Act doesn’t overstep. Beneficiaries would still face consequences, in the form of probation, while having barriers to their rehabilitation removed. It’s a small policy change that can transform lives. We hope Congress will recognize this and act.


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