America’s effort to use our prisons to stem the illegal drug problem has largely failed.
Incarceration of drug offenders has seen prison and jail populations skyrocket, even as public opinion has shifted away from harsh sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
That’s why the U.S. Sentencing Commission was right to decide this month that some 50,000 federal drug trafficking offenders could be eligible for reduced sentences. The amendment to federal sentencing guidelines, approved in April, is already in effect for offenders facing sentencing in the future, creating an issue of fairness: Why should the length of a sentence be determined by the date of sentencing?
The commission’s unanimous decision could see inmates get an average of two years off their prison terms, according to a report in The Washington Post.
America’s approach to its drug problem is in evolution. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in Colorado and Washington. Sentences for peddling crack cocaine are now no more severe than those for peddling powdered cocaine.
Many Americans agree that the nation lost its way with its war on drugs.
Still, the prospect of so many prisoners being released back into society properly raised the concern of a large number of prosecutors and judges who opposed the commission’s decision.
The sentencing commission was sensitive to this concern and set an effective date of Nov. 1, 2015, for the release of any prisoner. Prisoners may begin applying for sentence reductions in November.
That demonstrated a fair understanding of the complexity of the issue.
The changes apply to traffickers of all drugs, but it’s not yet clear exactly how many of the estimated 50,000 eligible prisoners will actually see their sentences reduced.
Drug offenders will certainly apply for the reductions, but judges will still have to determine whether the person is a danger to society and should remain imprisoned for the full length of his or her original sentence. Judges can also consider how inmates behaved after they were sentenced. In other words, those who were violent in prison, or continued to deal drugs, or acted as gang leaders hopefully won’t be roaming the streets sooner than they should.
But thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of drug offenders who the courts decide are not dangerous could be returned to society earlier than expected.
There’s no doubt that will create a challenge. But there’s also little doubt that America will not incarcerate itself out of an illegal drug problem that has destroyed the fabric of large swaths of the country.
Advocates of reform did not get everything they might want from the sentencing commission. Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses remain in place, for example.
But the amendment to the guidelines does offer judges flexibility to review offenders’ cases and decide whether they deserve the chance to return to society sooner.