Drug Sentencing Reform
Information from the LWV-CBC’s Learn and Share on Mandatory Drug Sentencing Reform, October 2012
Concurrence on positions adopted by the LWVDC (District of Columbia)
The LWVUS believes alternatives to imprisonment should be explored and utilized, taking into consideration the circumstances and nature of the crime. The LWVUS opposes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
(Note: the previous LWVUS position was “opposition to the death penalty.”)
Why is mandatory drug sentencing reform needed?
- The US has 25% of the world’s prison population (2.3 million in prison) with only 5% of the world’s population. One of every 31 Americans are in prison or jail or on probation or parole. Half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions.
- Spending on state prisons has outpaced investments in education and transportation. State spending on prisons has risen 6 times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years.
- Thirty years of research and real-world experience have shown incarceration is valuable for removing the most dangerous, violent individuals from our streets, but counterproductive for rehabilitation for less serious offenders. Community corrections, treatment and rehabilitation and other alternatives to prison have proven to be far more effective at reducing recidivism rates and at less cost to taxpayers. Columbia has a very successful drug court.
- Alternatives to prison save taxpayers money. They keep offenders with their families and jobs, instead of prison or jail with inmates convicted of violent crimes. As an example, in California a college student costs the state $8,667 per year and a prisoner costs the state $45,006 per year.
- In 2010 two of every three offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were drug offenders, with almost half of them receiving a 10-year penalty.
- Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately impact minorities. The new law that took effect in Missouri on August 28, 2012, changed the sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine to 18 to 1 (from 75 to 1!). This means that producing, distributing or possessing more than 8 grams of crack will face the same punishment as those with at least 150 grams of powder cocaine. Federal law was changed to 18 to 1 in 2010 from 100 to 1. There are now more black men in the criminal justice system than there were under slavery in 1850.
Notes from Fareed Zakaria’s Time Magazine piece called Incarceration Nation:
In 2009, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges with 4 of 5 arrested for simple possession.
Overall, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America (more than 6 million) than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. (New Yorker’s Adma Gopnik)
Just the Facts: 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens (7-10 times that of most other developed countries); Japan has 63 per 100,000; Germany 90, France 96; South Korea 97, Britain 153. Developing countries: Mexico 208 per 100,000; and Brazil 242 per 100,000. In 1980 the US prison population was 150 per 100,000. What caused the difference: the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 in 1980 to 148 in 1996. Half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges with 4 of 5 arrested for simple possession.
Over the past four decades the US has spent more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs. A global commission on drug policy recommended that, “The global war on drugs has failed . . .vast expenditures have failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption . . . The commission recommends experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.” Members of this commission included George Shultz and Paul Volcker.
Many state prisons are now run by private companies. With powerful lobbyists in state capitals, the companies have promised steady jobs in areas where jobs are needed. Consequently there has been a large outflow of tax dollars to these companies. So, state spending on prisons has risen 6 times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons vs. $5.7 billion on the UC system and state colleges. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prisons. A college student costs the state $8,667 per year and a prisoner costs the state $45,006 per year.
Note on private prisons: at the LWV National Convention presentation the speakers noted that private prisons have left the group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council, the group behind the Stand Your Ground laws and funded by the Koch Bros.) and ALEC is now in agreement that there needs to be sentencing reform.
What can LWVUS now lobby for:
- National Criminal Justice Act – a bi-partisan proposal to establish the National Criminal Justice Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of all areas of federal, state and local criminal justice systems.
- Second Chance Reauthorization Act – includes provisions to fund drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration.
- Proposals by state sentencing commissions and legislatures to change sentencing policies using evidence-based reforms.
The movie we will watch is Perversion of Justice. This is a film about Hamedah Hasan.
In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that federal judges no longer have to abide by mandatory sentencing guidelines, but this is not retroactive to those previously sentenced.
In 2010, the US Congress passed and President Obama signed a federal law that reduced the crack cocaine to powder cocaine sentencing time to 18:1 as noted above. The US Supreme Court ruled (5-4) in June 2012 that those who committed cocaine crimes before the more lenient penalties took effect and received their prison sentence afterward should benefit from the new rules.