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Despite Drug Policy Reform, Half of U.S. Prisoners Still Serving Time for Non-Violent Drug Crimes

Prison doors slide shut on non-violent drug offenders, even though drug policy reform is more lenient towards cannabis.


Despite Drug Policy Reform, Half of U.S. Prisoners Still Serving Time for Non-Violent Drug Crimes

On Jan. 30, the Obama Administration announced an early release plan for non-violent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.

2013 marked the fourth year in a row the amount of prisoners released from US Prisons exceeded the amount of prisoners entering the system. On a Federal level, prison populations increased only slightly at an expansion rate of 0.7 percent, down from a three-year average of 3.2 percent.

American taxpayers pay more than $50 billion annually to house 2.3 million prisoners at both the federal and state levels. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2011, non-violent offenders represented a little less than half of the prison population, many serving extended time due to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require those convicted serve at least a certain amount of time in prison as punishment for their crime, without discretionary input from judges overseeing their case. The law puts the average user in prison for the same amount of time as manufacturers and distributors.

In the United States, initial mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted in 1952 with the passage of The Boggs Act. The penalty for first time cannabis possession under that law was 2-10 years in federal prison accompanied by a hefty $20,000 fine.

These harsh punishments for cannabis use were repealed in 1970 by Congress only to be reinstated in the Anti-Abuse Drug Act of 1986, championed by the Reagan Administration, which set new mandatory minimum sentencing requirements which affect prison populations to this day. Prosecutors often utilize drug sentencing enhancement provisions to coerce defendants into foregoing trial and pleading guilty.

The recent Congressional push for mandatory sentencing reforms began with The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 cutting penalties for crack cocaine users. The bill, however, only addressed new cases without considering non-violent prisoners currently serving time.

In March 2013, Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which afforded judges the discretionary ability to sentence below mandatory minimum requirements for non-violent crimes and petty drug offenses. The argument for this reform did not necessarily revolve around the moral argument but rather the fiscal argument.

Just before the New Year, Obama commuted the sentences of eight prisoners serving life sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

The issue now has bipartisan support. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) are writing an expansion of The Fair Sentencing Act in 2014 called The Smarter Sentencing Act, which seeks to use the same sentencing standards set in The Safety Valve Act for more non-violent crimes. In the House of Representatives, companion bills are being sponsored by Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Prison Reform Activists have praised efforts made by the Obama Administration, but have called on lawmakers to consider the thousands of Americans incarcerated unfairly and push to abolish drug sentencing enhancement provisions altogether.

In response to the Obama Administration’s efforts at reform, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement, “Unfortunately, there are still thousands of people behind bars serving extreme and unfair sentences in the federal and state prison systems.”

The Obama Administration has already announced intentions to continue organizing the early release of more prisoners calling on defense attorneys to refer low level, non violent offenders serving extended sentences for early release. There is no telling how long reforms will take, but 2014 is shaping up to be another formative year for reform activists set to progress humanity back to a space of reason when it comes to incarcerating individuals for non violent offenses. For those serving extended prison sentences for personal drug use, change seems a World away, but couldn’t come fast enough

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