Sentencing for Some Drug Crimes Will Change if Holder Has His Way

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The Drug Policy Alliance has an interesting history of America’s War on Drugs on its website. The organization opposes the war on drugs, arguing that public policies under the initiative have done more harm than good. A subheading on in the history offers a fairly pointed explanation of the harm. “The 1980s and 90s: Drug Hysteria and Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates” section talks about President Reagan’s expansion of anti-drug policies and the results: From 1980 to 1997, the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 to more than 400,000.

One explanation for the increase — and a product of the hysteria according to the DPA — is the imposition of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent¬†drug offenses. That approach, however, has fallen out of favor in the past few years, and lawmakers in the federal government and in North Carolina have been looking into fairer sentencing guidelines that rely less heavily on prison terms.

North Carolina responded by enacting structured sentencing. Materials available at the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission’s website explain the guiding principles of structured sentencing. Sentencing policies should be rational, truthful and consistent, and they should set resource priorities, the commission says, and by “resource priorities,” the commission means:

The use of prisons and jails should be prioritized first for violent and repeat offenders and community-based programs should be first utilized for nonviolent offenders with little or no prior record.

Structured sentencing went into effect in 1994. The federal government has worked at a slower pace.

Last summer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took an important step toward reform. Holder asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission — the independent agency responsible for sentencing policies — to look at the guidelines for nonviolent drug crimes and to consider lowering the mandatory minimums.

The commission went back to Holder after a few months. We’ll discuss the commission’s recommendations and Holder’s unofficial campaign to lower minimums next week.

Sources: 

WNCN, “Holder endorses proposed drug sentencing changes,” Eric Tucker (Associated Press), March 13, 2014

The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, “A Citizen’s Guide to Structured Sentencing,” Revised 2012, at www.nccourts.org