Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost, Low Return

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Insanity has been defined as repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting the outcomes to change. US drug policy has fit the definition well, at a terrible waste in lives and money. The Pew Charitable Trust takes a look at what the US has done and at the results:

More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses—up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.1 Changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices played a role in this growth, but federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s also have required more drug offenders to go to prison— and stay there much longer—than three decades ago.2 (See Figure 1.) These policies have contributed to ballooning costs: The federal prison system now consumes more than $6.7 billion a year, or roughly 1 in 4 dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.3

Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return. The self-reported use of illegal drugs has increased over the long term as drug prices have fallen and purity has risen.4 Federal sentencing laws that were designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of offenders who played relatively minor roles.5 These laws also have failed to reduce recidivism. Nearly a third of the drug offenders who leave federal prison and are placed on community supervision commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release—a rate that has not changed substantially in decades.6

Pew figure 1

More imprisonment, higher costs

Congress increased criminal penalties for drug offenders during the 1980s—and, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s—in response to mounting public concern about drug-related crime.7 In a 1995 report that examined the history of federal drug laws, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that “drug abuse in general, and crack cocaine in particular, had become in public opinion and in members’ minds a problem of overwhelming dimensions.”8 The nation’s violent crime rate surged 41 percent from 1983 to 1991, when it peaked at 758 violent offenses per 100,000 residents.9

Congress increased drug penalties in several ways. Lawmakers enacted dozens of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that required drug offenders to serve longer periods of confinement. They also established compulsory sentence enhancements for certain drug offenders, including a doubling of penalties for repeat offenders and mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for those convicted of a third serious offense. These laws have applied broadly: As of 2010, more than 8 in 10 drug offenders in federal prisons were convicted of crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences.10

Also during the 1980s, Congress created the Sentencing Commission, an appointed panel that established strict sentencing guidelines and generally increased penalties for drug offenses. The same law that established the commission, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, also eliminated parole and required all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences behind bars before becoming eligible for release.

Federal data show the systemwide effects of these policies:

  • Probation has all but disappeared as a sanction for drug offenders. In 1980, federal courts sentenced 26 percent of convicted drug offenders to probation. By 2014, the proportion had fallen to 6 percent, with judges sending nearly all drug offenders to prison.11 (See Figure 2.)
  • The length of drug sentences has increased sharply. As shown in Figure 1 above, from 1980 to 2011 (the latest year for which comparable statistics are available), the average prison sentence imposed on drug offenders increased 36 percent—from 54.6 to 74.2 months—even as it declined 3 percent for all other offenders.12
  • The proportion of federal prisoners who are drug offenders has nearly doubled. The share of federal inmates serving time for drug offenses increased from 25 percent in 1980 to a high of 61 percent in 1994.13 This proportion has declined steadily in recent years—in part because of rising prison admissions for other crimes—but drug offenders still represent 49 percent of all federal inmates.14
  • Time served by drug offenders has surged. The average time that released drug offenders spent behind bars increased 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from 23.2 to 58.6 months.15 This increase dwarfs the 39 and 44 percent growth in time served by property and violent offenders, respectively, during the same period.16

The increased imprisonment of drug offenders has helped drive the explosive overall growth of the federal prison system, which held nearly 800 percent more inmates in 2013 than it did in 1980.17 One study found that the increase in time served by drug offenders was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”18

Growth in the prison population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.19 . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Drug laws

2 Responses

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  1. Disgusting. All those Fed prisoners should start forming an army



    28 August 2015 at 2:09 pm

  2. What’s difficult to understand is why we keeping following the same policies that not only are incredibly costly (in lives and dollars) but are repeatedly proven not to work. I don’t get it. It’s as if no one is paying any attention.



    28 August 2015 at 2:24 pm

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