DOJ proposes changes to mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses

To tackle the U.S. drug epidemic, mandatory, non-negotiable sentence laws for certain drug crimes were passed and implemented in the 80s and 90s. An individual caught in possession of just 1 kilogram of heroin, for instance, will be given an automatic 10 year minimum prison sentence without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors have to follow the law even if the individual's circumstances don't warrant such a sentence. As a result, the U.S. has skyrocketed as today's leader in the list of developed countries with the most people behind bars in relation to overall population. Roughly 2.4 million individuals reside in prisons all across the country.

Now, over 25 years later, the U.S. attitude on the overall war on drugs and, nonviolent drug offenses, in particular, has changed a bit. Recently, the Justice Department unveiled its plans to try and circumvent these mandatory laws and stop the draconian sentences imposed on low-level offenders.

Proposed plans

Specifically, Attorney General Eric Holder recently revealed in a public conference the DOJ's plans to:

  • Allow federal prosecutors to strategically charge offenders (without significant criminal histories) facing low-level drug charges with crimes that would skirt the mandatory sentences. (To do this, prosecutors would, for instance, omit the quantity of drugs found on the offender.)
  • Allow federal judges to depart from imposing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. (However, Congressional approval is first needed before this can be put into action.)
  • Relax the strict parole criteria for elderly inmates or those with serious medical conditions (contingent on a nonviolent history).

Reasons behind the push

There are many reasons for the big push.

First, space is a key issue. Federal prisons have reached maximum capacity. According to Holder, many federal prisons are nearly 40 percent above capacity with half the inmates serving sentences for drug crimes.

Second, the cost to house such a huge prison population is bankrupting the country. It costs taxpayers roughly $21,000 per inmate in a minimum security prison, $33,000 per inmate in a maximum security prison.

But, most importantly, moral grounds exist for the change. According to Holder, too many nonviolent individuals without any ties to large gangs or cartels are unfairly imposed draconian mandatory sentences.

Future implications

It's unlikely that the DOJ's proposals will drastically affect individuals already imprisoned. However, the initiatives are certainly a step in the right direction to changing the way the U.S. culture views and reacts to nonviolent offenders, particularly in the wake of the shift in marijuana acceptance.

Given that the prison population is four times higher than in 1980 and the war on drugs is now in its 5th decade, the time for changing the rules is long overdue.