The Right Move: U.S. Aims to Finally Reform Overly Harsh Drug Sentences

In the United States, there is a higher percentage of people incarcerated behind prison bars than in any other nation in the world. Yes, many of them are murderers, rapists, muggers and other dangerous, hard-core criminals. At the same time, though, many are also non-violent, low-level drug dealers who have been imprisoned for long stretches of time due to mandatory minimum sentences that were adopted around the nation to show citizens that their local officials were tough on crime.

The problem with that policy is due to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug dealers, most of them are locked up for far longer terms than much more dangerous criminals who have carried out far more vile crimes, including murder, rape and robbery.

Now, finally, that could begin to change.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced earlier this week that he is directing federal prosecutors around the nation to “charge defendants in certain low-level drug cases in such a way that they would not be eligible for mandatory sentences now on the books,” according to an Aug. 12 story by Reuters. The idea, according to the Obama administration, is that such steps would “fix what it considers the longstanding unjust treatment of many nonviolent drug offenders” while also “reducing America’s huge prison population and saving billions of dollars.”

In a nation where many school systems are struggling to hold their budgets together to teach their students, many critics have been vocal for some time over the huge amounts of money our government puts into prisons while cutting back educational programs for our children.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said in a speech in San Francisco at a conference of the American Bar Association, where he unveiled the proposals, according to Reuters. To make this happen, prosecutors would no longer designate the amount of drugs involved in a case so that “nonviolent defendants without significant criminal history would not get long sentences.”

At least one other proposal by Holder, giving federal judges the discretion to not use mandatory minimum sentence guidelines for some drug crimes, would require congressional approval, the story reported.

Holder’s policy changes affect cases involving low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels, he said in his speech, reported Reuters. Under his new directives, those criminals “will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” he said. “As the so-called war on drugs enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective.”

Prison population rates vary around the world from country to country, but the rates are led by the United States, which has imprisoned 716 of every 100,000 citizens, according to statistics maintained by the International Centre for Prison Studies, which assists governments and other agencies to develop appropriate policies on prisons and the use of imprisonment. In Cuba, where dissidents are imprisoned by the dictatorial rule of its government, the rate is only 510 for each 100,000 residents, according to the Centre. The number of prisoners in other nations range from 284 in Iran, to 149 in England and Wales to 121 in China and 98 in Austria. The lowest rate is 6 in San Marino, according to the Centre’s statistics.

These statistics show the outrageousness of our policies here in the United States. The long-ago decision to fight a “war on crime” across the nation has not solved our societal problems of gun violence, murder, and other major crimes. Instead, it has been filling our expensive to run prisons with larger numbers of drug dealers who are being sentenced to artificially inflated sentences that make law-makers feel good while not truly serving the interests of our citizenry.

Local governments today, from Philadelphia to Montgomery County to Bucks County in Pennsylvania to New Jersey, Delaware and everywhere in between, cannot afford to house all of the petty criminals that the “lock them up and throw away the keys” officials want to see incarcerated. Unfortunately our country is run by too many politicians who are only concerned with re-election and with voicing messages that will get them more votes, such as “I’m tough on criminals.”

It is about time that our national government takes the lead on this important issue so that we can begin to shrink the size of our prison populations that are eating up scarce government dollars that could be better spent on education, technology, the economic recovery, roads and highways, social services for the elderly and poor and many other vastly more important needs.

A documentary film I watched earlier this year, “The House I Live In,” which was produced by a talented director named Eugene Jarecki, laid bare the notion that the “War on Drugs” was never really even about drugs at all, but about a “war on people.”  This alleged war should be more accurately entitled the war of the powerful on the powerless.

Those federal sentencing guidelines enacted by Congress decades ago originally sentenced drug defendants who were caught with crack cocaine to sentences that are 100 times longer than sentences meted out to drug defendants who are caught with the exact same amount of powder cocaine. That means the people caught for using small amounts of drugs were sentenced to exponentially longer prison sentences than the bad guys who are distributing and selling large amounts of drugs.  Only recently, that particular sentencing guideline has been reduced to give crack cocaine defendants sentences that are “only” 18 times longer than those for powder cocaine defendants. As a result, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, America now houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

We here at MyPhillyLawyer applaud the changes begun by Attorney General Holder and we look forward to the intelligent, reasonable and ground-breaking changes and discussions that it will put into motion. It’s time to stop the outdated, wrong and unfair drug sentencing guidelines created by national leaders of the past from destroying the very fabric of America. We may be an imperfect people but should the solution to imperfection be the incarceration of generation after generation?

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