Will reforms reduce sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes?

Most crimes involving drugs in Orange County, New York, carry a steep mandatory penalty. Throughout the country, arrests for drug crimes contribute substantially to the number of people incarcerated, and even nonviolent offenders who are not tied to criminal organizations may face years of imprisonment. However, reforms recently proposed by the Justice Department may finally change the harsh punishments for even minor drug crimes.

The proposals

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder proposed a change in the way that sentencing for lower-level drug cases is handled, according to the Huffington Post. Holder pointed out that current policy leaves many people in prison for very long intervals, unevenly affects certain communities and distracts law enforcement from focusing on more high-level crimes.

According to Reuters, Holder has proposed a few different changes. Holder recommended charging people implicated in low-level cases without factoring in the quantity of drugs involved, which would protect the accused from current minimum sentencing requirements. He also proposed giving judges more leeway to determine sentencing on a case-by-case basis and go below the minimum incarceration time if necessary.

These proposals could benefit people convicted of possessing small quantities of drugs or playing a role in nonviolent drug crimes. However, proponents say that changes would also save the government money while helping with the issue of overcrowded prisons.

The numbers on drug crime

The number of people incarcerated in the United States is relatively high, and drug crime arrests may contribute substantially to that figure. Reuters and the Huffington Post have reported the following statistics:

  • The U.S. accounts for only 5 percent of the world's population, yet holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners, according to Holder.
  • The incarceration rate here is 716 of 100,000 people - the highest documented rate in the world, according to London's International Centre for Prison Studies.
  • The number of people imprisoned for drug crimes increased by more than 20,000 from 2000 to 2010, according to the Department of Justice.
  • In 2010, people accused of drug crimes made up more than 50 percent of incarcerated federal prisoners, according to the Bureau of Justice.
  • The figure dropped below 50 percent in 2011, according to the same source.

Holder's proposed changes to drug sentencing could have a significant impact on these statistics. People accused of violent felony drug crimes and connections to criminal organizations would still face steep penalties. However, there would be fewer people facing lengthy incarcerations for smaller crimes.