Vermont Chief Judge: The Criminal Justice System Can’t Solve The Drug Problem

Exasperated with a swelling case load that tests the limits of effective access to justice, Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber has come out in recent weeks against a criminal justice approach to drug policy.

In two speeches and an interview with state publication Seven Days, Reiber became vocal in opposition to the so-called War on Drugs. “The public responds very well to this ‘tough on crime’ message, but that does not mean it’s effective in changing individual behavior,” Reiber told Seven Days. “If the idea is law enforcement alone will slow and eventually eliminate drug use altogether, that isn’t going to happen … The criminal justice system can’t solve the drug problem.”

While Reiber’s role as a judge precludes him from taking a position on drug policy laws, he cited statistics in Portugal, which eliminated all penalties for drug possession in 2001 and saw a drop in drug use alongside a spike in treatment.

He said he views the overarching problem as one that affects the judiciary as much as other branches, given repeat offenders, tough punishments for low-level crimes, and other ancillary offenses that result from a lack of sufficient drug treatment programs. He has seen a spike in felonies in his courtroom from drug cases, for example, but also a spike in child neglect cases, many of which he attributes to drug-abusive parents who are being funneled into the criminal justice system rather than receiving help.


“This is happening in numbers that’s alarming to me, and I think I have an obligation to defend the judiciary,” Reiber said.

Earlier this year, a prominent federal appeals court judge called criminalizing drug use “highly problematic” in the high-profile sentencing of actor Michael Douglas’ son. And a retired Orange County judge has focused his post-judicial career on opposing the drug war.

Far more judges, hower, have limited their criticism vocal to the federal drug sentencing scheme, an element of the drug war that over-punishes low-level crimes with year or a lifetime behind bars.