It's time to reduce prison sentences for minor drug offenders

By Caitlyn Schmid| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Social Justice

The war on drugs has been an ongoing topic of discussion for decades. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world—nearly 751 per 100,000 people are behind bars. The number of those has been increasing dramatically since the 1980s (almost 13-fold) and with close to half (48 percent) of the incarcerated population of the United States serving time for drug-related crimes, it’s time to take some action to reduce this number.

Attorney General Eric Holder told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that he would support the reduction of federal prison sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses (leaving the harshest sentences for those convicted of violent crimes). This action would cut prison time for thousands of inmates and could drop the U.S. prison population by close to 6,000 inmates in the next five years. Not only would this save the country billions of dollars for not having to house the convicts, it would also help minorities and those whom many don’t associate with the prison system.

The U.S. prison system is overwhelmingly made up of racial minorities. For example, although African Americans represent an estimated 13 percent of the prison population, they make up an estimated 44 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Research shows that the likelihood of imprisonment for African Americans and Latinos is greater than for white U.S. citizens.

Crack cocaine especially—which African Americans are disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms for—causes many minorities to have longer jail times. Incarceration prevents everyone—regardless of race—from privileges in the future such as voting rights, public assistance, job opportunities, and student loans. By reducing the federal prison time, we can help minorities be more fairly treated during and after a sentence.

Limiting sentences would also benefit women who are thrown in prison for minor drug offenses or for association with a crime. Children—oftentimes invisible victims of the U.S. correctional system—will also get their mothers and fathers who are incarcerated back quicker than they would with a longer sentence. This will help strengthen the bond between parent and child which may be lost while the parent is behind bars.

All types of people would benefit from reducing the sentence for minor drug offenses. It will be interesting to see if prison time is shortened in the weeks ahead.

Image: Flickr photo cc by derekskey