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U.S. Moves Toward Reduced Sentences for Drug Offenders

Prison terms for certain nonviolent drug offenses will be shortened starting this fall in an attempt to ease overcrowded federal lockups around the nation, a bipartisan commission has decided.

The reduction for time spent behind bars will become official Nov. 1 absent action by Congress, and is expected to drop the population in federal prisons by 6,500 inmates, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Half of the 216,500 inmates in the country’s federal prisons are there on drug-related offenses.

The commission’s recommendation reflects a policy supported by the Justice Department to bring punishments for low-level drug offenders in line with the severity of their crimes.

The panel estimates that 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, with their sentences decreasing by about 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months, on average.

The amendment will go to Congress for its approval May 1. Congress has six months to introduce and pass legislation to stop the proposed changes before they become law in November, after which inmates would have the ability to apply for a review of their sentences. A stop order by Congress is seen as unlikely in the wake of a bipartisan view that drug sentences are often unreasonably long.

Before its unanimous approval, the proposal drew 22,000 letters during public comments, and has been vocally supported by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” Judge Patti B. Saris, commission chairwoman, said April 10 in announcing the panel’s decision. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

Shortening prison sentences for the non-violent drug defendant has been the ambition of a bipartisan national effort that includes Holder, who has directed federal prosecutors to refrain from charging drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences of several decades — excepting the violent or criminal masterminds of cartels.

While the sentencing reduction decision was prompted by a crushingly large national prison population, it was widely praised by advocates of treatment for drug abuse rather than on the costly imprisonment of addicts.

Addiction Expert Weighs In

“We should focus instead on the early identification of individuals with opiate and other substance abuse problems,” said Dr. David Sack, a national addiction expert and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health. “And we should expand opportunities and incentives for entering and staying in treatment programs such as drug courts and community reinforcement that can actually increase treatment success.”

Stretched budgets and overcrowded prisons have led dozens of states to pass laws that ease sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, according to a comprehensive analysis by the Pew Research Center. Seventeen states now have reforms like drug treatment and supervision that will save about $4.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Justice Department. There has been a bipartisan view that drug sentences are often unreasonably long. Half of all inmates in the country’s federal prisons are there on drug-related offenses.

“Congress can do even more,” The New York Times urged in an editorial, “by reducing the mandatory minimum sentences that have driven so much of the federal prison crisis. Legislation to do exactly that was introduced last year and is still waiting to be passed.”

Advocates have long urged treating drug addiction as the medical illness it is rather than focusing on expensive incarcerations. Along with reducing sentences, other “justice strategies” such as drug courts, are favored by some.

How Drug Courts Work

The drug-addicted arrestee may be sent to drug court in lieu of traditional criminal case processing. Drug courts keep people in treatment long enough to give addiction treatment a chance to work, and the convicted remain under close supervision while they are in the program. For a minimum of one year, accepted participants are given what the National Association Of Drug Court Professionals outlines as intense treatment and support services needed for the person to maintain sobriety. The defendants answer to the drug court judges; they are randomly and regularly drug tested and are expected to appear frequently in court for accountability and are rewarded or sanctioned based on their progress.

In 2012, there were 1.57 million inmates in the nation’s federal and state prisons, a slight decline from the prior two years, indicating a sea change in views about criminal sentencing, observers told the New York Times last year. Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, told The Times that changes in state and federal sentencing laws for non-violent, lower-level crimes such as drug-related offenses have been central to the slight but consistent inmate population drop. Parole terms have had to be re-examined by some states, which no longer automatically return parole violators to prison.

Holder vowed to expand use of drug courts last month when he made a national address and called the soaring use and deaths from opiates — painkillers and heroin — “an urgent public health crisis.” He was referring to the 45 percent increase from 2004 to 2010 in the fatal overdoses from heroin and other opiates found in prescription painkillers. Holder called such drugs– including OxyContin, Roxycodone, Percocet, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Lortab and morphine — a gateway to heroin.

“Addiction to heroin and other opiates, including certain prescription painkillers, is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life,” Holder said. “Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both.”

Holder promised beefed up federal attention via the Drug Enforcement Agency and border patrols to halt incoming narcotics, and noted the number of drug courts designed to resolve cases in the context of substance abuse. He called for more prevention education by doctors, police and parents. He offered no details on treatment– an omission not lost on those who work directly with addicts.

In the sentencing decision, the nonpartisan commission emphasized that it is mindful of lingering concerns about early release of drug offenders.

“We have given careful consideration to public safety in making this decision today and will continue to monitor drug sentences to determine whether any additional modifications are needed,” commission member Saris said.

There is still hope.

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