More Drug Prisoners Doing More Time in Federal Prison System, According to New Justice Department Report 8/24/01

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The number of federal drug prosecutions per year nearly tripled between 1984 and 1999 and the amount of time convicted drug offenders served more than doubled, according to a report released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Federal prosecutors charged 29,306 people with drug offenses in 1999, compared to 11,853 in 1984. The average prison stay for federal drug offenders jumped from 2 ½ years in 1984 to 5 ½ years in 1999, the last year for which statistics are available.

Citing a litany of new laws beginning with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which abolished federal parole, and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which instituted mandatory minimum sentencing for many drug offenses, the report's author, BJS statistician John Scalia, wrote: "During the 1980s and 1990s changes in Federal criminal law and policy had a substantial effect on the processing of Federal offenders -- particularly drug offenders."

That's putting it mildly. More than two-thirds of all federal prisoners -- some 68,000 people -- are doing time on drug charges. By 1999, drug defendants were more likely to be found guilty, more likely to be sent to prison (up from 72% during 1984 to 89% during 1999), more likely to get a longer sentence (up from 62 months to 74 months), and more likely to serve a higher percentage of their sentences (up from 48% to 87%). Nearly two-thirds of federal drug offenders were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws, the report noted.

In announcing the report, Attorney General John Ashcroft crowed about success in fighting "the scourge of drugs," but distorted the report's findings in some of his comments. "Tougher federal drug laws are making a real difference in clearing major drug offenders from our nation's streets," he said. "Federal drug offenders are predominantly hard-core criminals with prior arrest records who are convicted for drug trafficking, not first-time nonviolent offenders charged with drug possession."

More than nine out of ten federal drug convictions in 1999 were for trafficking, but that is about all Ashcroft got right. According to the report, one-third of federal drug offenders had never been previously arrested, and two out of three had no prior felony convictions. Of that minority of drug offenders with previous convictions, 32% had only prior drug convictions. Fewer than 10% of all drug offenders convicted in 1999 had previous violent felony convictions. Misrepresentations notwithstanding, according to the BJS statistics, 90% of people convicted on federal drug charges in 1999 were nonviolent offenders and two-thirds of those convicted were first felony offenders. Nine out of ten first-timers (92%) went to prison anyway.

Crime experts also challenged Ashcroft's claim that "drug laws are making a real difference." Northwestern University criminologist James Alan Fox told the Associated Press that the increase in federal drug prosecutions is only getting the tip of the iceberg. "We are devoting a tremendous amount of money and resources to this relentless war on drugs, which is not winnable," he said.

Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein seconded Fox's opinion. "The problem (with punitive responses) is that they do not take you very far," he told the Washington Post. "The drug market is demand-driven, and so you have to deal with that through prevention and treatment."

In its critique of Ashcroft's spin on the report (, the Sentencing Project noted that while the Attorney General claimed that "[f]ederal law enforcement is targeted effectively at convicting major drug traffickers," the BJS report showed that only 0.6% of all referrals were for persons charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise, the most sophisticated and elaborate drug peddling operations. More than three times as many people were referred for simple drug possession, the nonprofit group noted.

Among other findings in the report:

  • Marijuana prohibition continues to fuel the federal drug war. Nearly one-third of all federal drug referrals were for marijuana offenses, compared to 28% for powder cocaine, 15% for crack cocaine, 15% for methamphetamine, and a surprisingly low 7% for all opiates.
  • The drug war continues to fuel the growth of federal criminal prosecutions. Thirty-two percent of referrals to US Attorneys were drug-related in 1999, up from 18% in 1984.
  • The crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity continues to take its toll. The report's authors identified crack offenders as one of three groups receiving the longest prison terms. Crack offenders were sentenced to an average of 9 ½ years. The other high-sentence groups identified in the report were those possessing a firearm (11 years) and those with extensive criminal records (10 ½ years).
  • The crackdown on the US-Mexican border is generating both a huge number of cases and a huge number of Hispanic drug offenders. Two of the 94 federal judicial districts -- the Western District of Texas and the Southern District of California -- alone produced 15% of all federal drug cases in 1999. Eleven federal judicial districts, mostly along the border, accounted for 43% of all federal drug cases. Largely because of interdiction enforcement, Hispanics accounted for 46% of federal drug defendants in 1999. (Blacks made up 28%, whites 25%.)
  • Nearly two-thirds of federal drug defendants were represented by court-appointed attorneys or public defenders and about 60% of those charged were held without bail or unable to make bail between arrest and trial.
Still, there is some good news. According to the United States Sentencing Commission (, the average length of federal drug sentences has been declining slowly over the past decade. The average sentence length has dropped by a year since 1996 and two years since 1991.

"It's clear to me that more federal judges and prosecutors have voted with their feet on sentence length," Indiana University law professor Frank Bowman III told the Washington Post. Bowman, coauthor of "Quiet Rebellion? Explaining Nearly a Decade of Declining Federal Drug Sentences," added: "They are saying that they don't think drug sentences need to be as long as they are to accomplish their aim."

But, as the BJS report makes clear, even if drug sentencing mania has peaked, more people are going to federal prison on drug charges and serving more time than they did 15 years ago. The US remains in the grip of crack-engendered drug war hysteria.

("Federal Drug Offenders, 1999 With Trends, 1984-1999," can be found at online.)

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Issue #200, 8/24/01 Editorial: Random Marijuana | More Drug Prisoners Doing More Time in Federal Prison System, According to New Justice Department Report | Colombian Legislators Introduce Legalization, Cultivation Bills, Ask UN to Evaluate Global Anti-Drug Strategies | Jamaican Ganja Commission Calls for Decrim, Battle With US Brewing | Pressure Builds for Safe Injection Rooms in Vancouver as Canadian Medical Association Journal Studies Add Fuel to Fire | NIDA Ecstasy Conference Hears Harm Reduction Call | Aging Behind Bars: New Report from The Sentencing Project Blasts California's Three-Strikes Law | Hutchinson Takes DEA Mantle, Comments Elicit Confusion and Criticism | Hempfest Draws 100,000 in Seattle, Hempstock Draws the Cops in Maine | T-shirts for Victory! Special Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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