Current drug laws impose harsh sentences for drug crimes, even in cases with minor offenses. Reforms are needed that make sentences for drug crimes equal to the severity of the offense. Many drug offenders are spending years in jail for non-violent, minor drug crimes.
Harsh Drug Laws Need Reform
Over the years, a series of sentencing policy changes have resulted in a dramatic rise in incarceration for drug crimes. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs in 1982 and the “tough on crime” era, the number of people jailed for drug offenses has increased significantly in the United States. In 1980, the number of people in jail for drug crimes was 40,900. In 2015, that number was 469,545. Today, more people are in prison for drug crimes than the total number of people incarcerated for all crimes in 1980.
During President Obama’s term in office, drug crime laws were relaxed to provide more leniency to non-violent drug offenders. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the disparities in certain drug offenses. In 2014, a unanimous vote by the United States Sentencing Commission reduced excessive sentences for up to 46,000 inmates that were serving time for federal drug offenses.
In 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimum sentences focused too much on the amount of drugs instead of the crime. The commission has since loosened some of its guidelines, allowing thousands of non-violent, low-level drug offenders to leave prison early. President Obama supported this effort by granting clemency to many other non-violent offenders.
In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed President Obama’s leniency policies when he advised federal prosecutors to seek the maximum punishment for drug crimes. This recent change that imposed harsher sentences for drug crimes will put more people in jail for minor drug offenses. Rather than reducing convictions and jail sentences for low-level drug crimes, the order by Sessions will continue harsh penalties and unjust sentences that keep people in jail for many years.
According to statistics by the Bureau of Justice, the most frequent non-violent drug crimes include drug trafficking and drug possession. In Minnesota, drug crimes cover a broad range of offenses that violate state and federal laws. Non-violent offenses such as drug manufacturing and distribution, drug sales and trafficking, and drug possession are often charged as misdemeanors, but felony charges may apply depending on the circumstances of the crime and the type and amount of drugs.
Collateral Consequences of Drug Crimes
In addition to harsh sentences and long jail terms, federal laws impose collateral consequences for drug offenses. These are civil restrictions imposed on all individuals with criminal convictions. They can have a significant impact on a person’s rights and entitlements. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), non-violent drug offenders who are convicted of a crime are subject to over 600 collateral consequences. A GAO report shows that approximately 641 regulations and civil restrictions can apply to non-violent drug offenses that don’t involve any attempted, threatened, or actual use of physical force. Of the 641 federal collateral consequences for non-violent drug offenders, 497 may impose restrictions for life, and only 131 restrictions allow individuals to earn relief by completing some type of drug rehabilitation.
Collateral consequences can have a significant impact on a person’s life. Civil restrictions affect a person’s employment opportunities, housing opportunities, and constitutional rights to vote and carry firearms. When collateral consequences are imposed, non-violent drug offenders often have difficulty resuming a normal lifestyle after being released from jail. In some cases, a criminal law attorney sees non-violent offenders who return to a life of crime, even violent crime, because civil restrictions have such a major impact on their life choices.
Juveniles, people between the ages of 10 and 17, who participate in drug crimes can also face serious penalties. According to Minnesota laws, courts can impose dual sentences with juvenile and adult sanctions on a juvenile offender. Although laws and consequences are different for juveniles, sentences can be harsh depending on the severity of the offense. Penalties for misdemeanors often include counseling and detention in a youth facility, but in felony cases, a juvenile can be charged and punished as an adult. If charged with a drug crime in Minnesota, juvenile offenders are not entitled to bail release or a jury trial. Typically, they are placed in a state program that helps serious juvenile offenders return to a law-abiding lifestyle. Under Minnesota law, they must remain under program supervision until they reach age 21.