Federal government announces changes to drug sentencing policy

In the 1980a and 1990s, Congress enacted harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges as part of the "war on drugs." As the years passed, federal prisons filled with non-violent drug offenders. A consensus began to develop among leaders that it was time to reexamine mandatory minimum sentence laws, since they were not achieving their intended purpose of stopping people from using drugs. In August 2013, the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, announced changes in the government's policy in charging those convicted of drug offenses.

Changes to charging procedures

The Attorney General modified the government's charging policies for people convicted of certain drug offenses. The Attorney General is directing prosecutors to leave off the amount of drugs involved on official charging documents of those who are non-violent, low-level offenders with no ties to gangs, large-scale organizations or cartels. That way they can avoid the mandatory minimum sentences currently called for by law, which the Attorney General called "draconian" in his announcement. Holder said that he would rather see non-violent drug offenders diverted to treatment or community service, rather than serve time in prison.

The Attorney General would also like to give federal judges the discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences on a case-by-case basis. However, Congress would have to amend the law to allow judges to do so, and experts believe that is unlikely to happen because of the partisan fighting in the Capitol. The Attorney General also favors releasing elderly inmates imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses who have served significant portions of their sentences.

World leader in incarceration

Mandatory minimum drug sentences have contributed to the U.S. being the world leader in percentage of population incarcerated. The U.S. has only 5 percent of the world's population, but has almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

Reforming drug sentencing policies would help reduce the amount of people in jail. Federal courts convict approximately 25,000 people of drug charges each year, according to the Sentencing Project, and about 45 percent of those convictions are for low-level offenses.

Talk to an attorney

Even though the U.S. Attorney General is advocating reform for drug crime sentences, federal drug charges are still very serious matters. Convictions for such charges can carry serious penalties. If you are facing drug charges, speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney with a history of successfully resolving such cases.