It’s no secret that the United States’ prisons are overpopulated with offenders serving time for nonviolent drug crimes. Now, however, the US Sentencing Commission is seeking to address that problem through an early release proposal. The proposal, which the Sentencing Commission passed earlier this month, will make over 46,000 current inmates eligible for early release starting in November 2015. As this policy is gradually phased in, it should cut the average prison sentence by about 25 months.
Reasons for Early Release Program
The new early release program is, in large part, a long overdue reaction to overcrowding in prisons. The US prison population dramatically increased from about 500,000 inmates in 1980 to an estimated 2.3 million in 2008. Today, roughly 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars.
Why the dramatic increase in prisoners in the last 34 years? It’s not necessarily that more crimes are being committed, but that legislators have taken a tough line on drug crimes, and lower-level offenses are being penalized more harshly.
This attitude began in the 1970s, when President Nixon called drugs “public enemy number one” in the US, and grew into a fervent war on drugs during the Reagan administration. The 3,000 federal laws in the 1980s grew to 4,450 federal laws—many of which were related to drug crimes—by 2008. As a result, many people are locked up not because they actually pose a threat to society, but because they’ve committed a low-level drug offense or another technical violation that they may not even have known existed. In fact, over half of all inmates in federal prisons are there for drug crimes.
Retroactively reducing the sentences of current drug offenders should also begin to address race-related disparities in sentencing. According to research reported by the NAACP, five times more white people than African-Americans use drugs, yet African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses ten times more than Caucasians. On average, African-Americans spend about the same amount of time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as white people do for committing a violent offense.
As Attitudes Change, We Need to Do Away with Disproportionate Sentences
The public attitude towards sentencing for drug crimes is finally starting to shift, and the early release program reflects this. But while the program is certainly a good thing, it’s tragic that many of the prisoners who will be eligible for early release have already spent over a decade of their lives in prison for a drug-dealing or drug possession offense.
Going forward, our justice system needs to rethink sentencing for drug crimes. For many of these nonviolent offenders, prison is not a necessary measure to “keep them from harming society.” Furthermore, prison is rarely a truly successful form of rehabilitation, and an alternative sentence—perhaps involving parole and counseling, in some cases—may be better suited to preventing recidivism.
If you or someone you love is currently being charged with a drug crime in the greater Chicago area, contact a Chicago drug lawyer as soon as possible. While drug crime policies are slowly changing, you can still expect Chicago’s prosecutors and judges to take a harsh line, and you need an experienced attorney to start building a strong defense as soon as possible.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area for the Law Offices of Andrew Weisberg. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and violent crimes to theft-related crimes and traffic violations.