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Drug policy reform could improve health outcomes

Racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system are concerning to many in Tennessee and across the country. This kind of inequality not only reflects bias in police and prosecution behavior but also can have long-lasting effects in other areas of society. By reforming the criminal penalties for drug possession charges, health outcomes could be improved and inequalities decreased, according to researchers.

When drug charges lead to felony convictions, they can have an impact on a person's ability to access many spheres of life, from immigration status to public housing to student loans. The subsequent effects can contribute substantially to social and economic inequality, especially when there is a strong racial or ethnic disparity in the use of felony drug charges. Social and economic factors play a major role in achieving positive health outcomes, noted the researchers. They urged that drug possession felonies be reclassified as misdemeanors in order to stem the tide of negative economic repercussions that can be reflected throughout a larger community.

The researchers also noted that this type of reclassification both reduces the number of felony arrests for all ethnic groups as well as reduces inequality in felony arrests between black and white defendants. In California, a state proposition passed in 2014 reclassified drug felonies to misdemeanors. In the years since the adoption of the law, racial disparities in arrests have decreased significantly. The researchers also noted that further attention is necessary to prosecutors' decisions to file certain charges or conclude plea agreements.

Drug charges can have a devastating effect on any person's life. The criminal penalties and related sanctions can make it difficult to find a job or pursue an education. When people are accused of drug crimes, a criminal defense attorney may work to challenge the evidence put forward by the prosecution and strive to avoid a conviction.

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