Federal Drug Sentences Have Increased Drastically Since 1980

By McCarton Ackerman 09/01/15

Nearly half of the country's prison population are being held on federal drug charges.

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President Barack Obama is actively commuting prisoners serving excessively long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, but new findings show that the problem has only been getting worse for the last 35 years.

A study released by Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the average sentence for federal drug offenders has risen by 36% since 1980. In addition, the number of people in prison for federal drug-related offenses has soared from 5,000 in 1980 to 95,000 today, or 49% of the total prison population.

Despite the zero-tolerance approach and mandatory minimum sentences adopted during the Reagan administration, the estimated prices of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine have actually decreased since 1981.

"[Reagan’s policies] were 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,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. “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.”

With an estimated 24 million Americans reportedly using illicit drugs in 2012, some states are realizing that the current punitive approach may not be the best one. Last March, the Utah Legislature passed House Bill 348, which reduced basic drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and also provided more funding for drug treatment.

“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,” said Gelb. “Gov. Herbert and the legislature ... 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.’”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.