In a recent editorial, the New York Times has called for a reduction in sentences for those convicted of low-level drug offenses. The impetus for the proposal is two-fold: first, Congress has been wrestling with sentencing reform for some time, and potential changes may be in sight; second, the available statistics show that an immense amount of money and resources are currently being devoted to housing inmates in federal prison who pose no danger to the community.
The facts are startling, even for those who may be generally familiar with the incarceration rate in the United States, which is by far the highest in the world. There are additional facts pushing for reform. First, between 1988 and 2012, the average time spend behind bars for all crimes more than doubled, from 17.9 months to 37.5 months. The increase was felt in all major categories of federal crimes – violent, drug, weapon, property, immigration and public order offenses. But in the case of drug crimes, the average sentence during the same period went from under two years to about five years. The increases are the result of minimum sentencing laws, elimination of parole, and similar measures.
In addition to the increased prison time for drug offenders, the fact is that almost half of all federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes. The majority of those inmates were convicted of low-level offenses, and they have no history of violence.
There are those who will point out that many of the drug convictions we’re speaking of are for drug trafficking. But before you leap to the conclusion that the inmates are drug kingpins running international cartels, you should be aware that the vast majority are not. A trafficking could involve something as minor as transporting a small amount of drugs.
Beyond what has already been pointed out, the research on the subject shows that (a) increasing the length of sentences has little impact on crime rates and (b) decreasing sentence length does not make defendants less likely to cooperate with law enforcement.
We expect Congress to address legislation on the issue this term, although we will have to wait to see the scope of any reform included in the new laws.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016