Study: Federal Drug Sentences Increasing

Aug 27, 2015

According to a study released Thursday by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the average sentence for federal drug offenders has risen 36 percent since 1980. According to Adam Gelb, Director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, that’s indicative of a broken justice system. 

The number of federal prisoners with drug-related offenses has risen from 5,000 in 1980 to 95,000 today. That’s 49 percent of the prison population. Gelb said that the policies enacted over thirty years ago have not proven to be the best approach.

“It was enacted with some good intentions to try to get control of the drug problem and it has been successful locking up and putting away major traffickers,” Gelb said. “The problem is that it has been interpreted and applied so broadly now that it is catching a lot of relatively minor players and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year that could be spent much more effectively with other strategies.”

In the late 1960’s the federal government began taking increasing steps to combat drugs, starting with the establishment of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs during the Lyndon Johnson presidency. While federal drug policies had been in place for years, Gelb said that the mayhem caused by drug-related violence beginning in the late 1970’s prompted Congress to act.

“Nixon was the first really to declare war on drugs but his primary drug strategy was dramatic expansion of treatment for hardcore addicts,” he said. “It wasn’t until the 1980’s when crack hit and there was a lot of violence tearing apart communities across the country that we started to see a much more punitive approach to this. What we’re seeing now is a system and a policy that has really gone off the rails.”

One of the study’s more surprising findings is that, even with mandatory minimums and a zero tolerance approach, the estimated retail prices of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine have decreased since 1981. According to Gelb, this is clear evidence that the laws have not deterred drug use or stopped their availability.

“Most researchers and observers have found that, as a policy matter, they’re not really having that much impact on public safety,” he said. “That is really played out when you look at the price-purity information that you’re referring to. If drugs are cheaper and more pure than they were, then these laws are clearly not having the deterrent effect they were intended to have.”

In March, the Utah legislature passed HB 348, which dropped simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The law also provides more funding for addiction treatment. Gelb said that Utah is leading the way in smart drug policy.

“Utah and other states are really setting an example for Congress and the rest of the country in developing smarter, more effective—and cost effective—approaches to dealing with the drug problem,” he said. “Gov. Herbert and the legislature earlier this year put together a major package of reforms that says, ‘We want to make sure that major traffickers and dealers go to prison but we also realize it’s a much more effective strategy to try to take lower-level offenders and get them into effective treatment programs.’”

Drug law reform will be taken up federally once Congress meets again this fall. Gelb said that reform proposals are already in place.

“There is enormous on Congress now to act. Congress has an opportunity in the next few months,” he said. “There are major bipartisan reform bills in both chambers and they take the same kind of tactic that Utah and these other states have.”

An estimated 24 million Americans reported using illicit drugs in 2012.