How Drug Offenses Are Taxing Prison Populations

The Washington Post recently published a thought-provoking article that addresses the awkward and oftentimes heart-wrenching situations that federal judges find themselves in. The piece spotlights the controversy of whether mandatory penalties imposed in the late 1980s for drug offenses are effective or fueling a growing crisis in our country. Should congressionally mandated sentences be imposed with such a heavy hand?

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, who presides over criminal cases in Iowa where I went to law school, points out, “My hands are tied.” Here is an excerpt from the Post article:

For more than two decades as a federal judge, Bennett had often viewed his job as less about presiding than abiding by dozens of mandatory minimum sentences established by Congress in the late 1980s for federal offenses. Those mandatory penalties, many of which require at least a decade in prison for drug offenses, took discretion away from judges and fueled an unprecedented rise in prison populations, from 24,000 federal inmates in 1980 to more than 208,000 last year. Half of those inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Federal prisons are overcrowded by 37 percent. The Justice Department recently called mass imprisonment a “budgetary nightmare” and a “growing and historic crisis.”

While Bennett struggles with sentencing forced upon him against his own reasoning, Iowa Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley defends the strict sentencing, saying it plays a vital role in keeping violent crime in check.

By some measures, their strategy had worked: Homicides had fallen by 54 percent since the late 1980s, and property crimes had dropped by a third. Prosecutors and police officers had used the threat of mandatory sentences to entice low-level criminals into cooperating with the government, exchanging information about accomplices in order to earn a plea deal. But most mandatory sentences applied to drug charges, and according to police data, drug use had remained steady since the 1980s even as the number of drug offenders in federal prison increased by 2,200 percent.

“A draconian, ineffective policy” was how then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had described it.

“A system that’s overrun” was what Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had said.

Iowa is not the only state faced with these problems of prison overcrowding, as many of us across the country are aware. Here in the state where I reside, the Rhode Island prison population has grown 443 percent in the last 35 years. Since Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in 1986, incarceration has jumped in numbers. The United States represents less than five percent of the world’s population, but locks up about 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Read more about correctional populations in the U.S. at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reveals that illicit drug use in this state is higher than the national average. Read the full study here.

Whether or not we agree with the heavy mandatory sentences is beside the point for anyone skating on the thin ice of drug abuse. The fact remains: as long as the law remains intact, officials that work within the system are bound by law, not reason. A drug offender could be kissing a major portion of his freedom good-by for a long time.

Read the original story from The Washington Post here.

Image of the Hon. Mark Bennett courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis, from his lecture on mass incarceration.