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Sentencing: US Prison Population Could Be Cut in Half With Four Humane Reforms, Including Drug Decriminalization, Report Says

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #511)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

The United States, home of the world's largest prison population, both per capita and in real terms, could save $20 billion a year and cut that population in half by adopting a handful of systemic reforms, including decriminalizing drug possession, said a prestigious group of social scientists in a report released Monday. Noting that the US prison population had grown eightfold since 1970, steadily increasing whether crimes rates were going up or down, the report called US prisons a "self-fueling system."

The report, Unlocking America was released by the JFA Institute, a Washington, DC, research organization that studies issues related to corrections and penal populations. It was authored by eight prominent criminologists and James Austin, president of JFA.

The massive increase in imprisonment in the past four decades has had little impact on crime, but has imposed substantial costs on society -- and on offenders and their families, the report found. "Our contemporary laws and justice system practices exacerbate the crime problem, unnecessarily damage the lives of millions of people (and) waste tens of billions of dollars each year," it said.

Referring to President Bush's pardon of disgraced former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the report noted: "President Bush was right. A prison sentence for Lewis "Scooter" Libby was excessive -- so too was the long three year probation term. But while he was at it, President Bush should have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year have also received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society."

Those people are the victims of what the authors described as "three key myths" that drive criminal justice policy: That there are "career criminals" who can be identified and imprisoned to reduce crime, that tougher penalties are needed to protect the public from "dangerous criminals," and that tougher penalties will deter criminals. The authors devote extensive space to debunking those policy-driving misconceptions.

"The system is almost feeding on itself now. It takes years and years and years to get out of this system and we do not see any positive impact on the crime rates," Austin, a coauthor of the report, told a news conference.

A more humane, less expensive, and greatly reduced prison system could be achieved by enacting four fundamental reforms, the report concluded. They are:

  • Reduce time served in prison.

  • Eliminate the use of prison for parole or probation technical violators.
  • Reduce the length of parole and probation supervision periods.
  • Decriminalize "victimless" crimes, particularly those related to drug use and abuse.

Regarding decriminalizing drug offenses, the report noted: "In recent years, behaviors have been criminalized that are not dangerous and pose little if any threat to others. A large group of people are currently serving time for behaviors that have been criminalized to protect people from themselves. Their offenses involved the consent of all immediate parties to the transaction. Common examples in American history have included abortion, gambling, illicit sexual conduct that does not involve coercion (e.g., prostitution and, until recently, homosexual activity), and the sale and possession of recreational drugs. According to the US Department of Justice, approximately 30-40% of all current prison admissions involve crimes that have no direct or obvious victim other than the perpetrator. The drug category constitutes the largest offense category, with 31% of all prison admissions resulting from such crimes."

The drug war is futile and has nasty collateral consequences, the report concluded. "Every time a dealer is taken out of circulation by a prison sentence, a new dealer is drawn in by the lure of large profits. The prosecution and imprisonment of low-level traffickers has increased racial disparities, and is the largest factor contributing to the rapid rise in imprisonment rates for women. Dealers' use of violence to eliminate competition helps to sustain the myth linking drug use to violence. Notwithstanding our extraordinary effort to discourage the use and sale of illegal drugs, they remain widely available and widely used."

Better than a prison-filling policy of prohibition, would be a regulatory approach to drugs, the report said. "Regulatory approaches, such as are now used for drugs that are not illegal should be given serious consideration. The success of recent referenda in several states allowing medical use of marijuana suggests that the public opinion may be changing."

Public opinion would change even faster if more people read this report. It is a scathing indictment of a failed and inhumane set of criminal justice and drug policies. $20 billion a year in savings from adopting the suggested reforms is easily quantifiable; the reduction in human suffering by reducing the prison population in half, while equally significant, is not so easily measured.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The World's Jailer, The Top Cop, the US locks us up and tries to throw away the keys but the prisons are bursting. It was only a small step for mankind to go from SWAT teams acting like hungry wolves to mass murder in Iraq, oh how good war is for war profiteers.

Fri, 11/23/2007 - 3:09pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Police Officer Line of Duty Gun Deaths

1905 46
1913 78 (50% of states have state alcohol prohibition)
1919 152 (Prohibition enacted)
1920 142 (Prohibition imposed)
1930 172 (highest year)
1933 147 (Prohibition ended)
1934 131
1935 115
1936 86
1937 73
1938 87
1939 59
1940 51
1941 62
1942 46
1943 40
1944 40
1945 51

Prohibition gets more cops killed.

Fri, 11/23/2007 - 4:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Rehabilitate not incarcerate because it does no good.Start with the rescheduling of marijuana as it does have medicinal uses and has for thousands of years.Keep the violent offenders.But don't keep warehouse addict who ned help not prison.I am a former addict and inmate,so I talk from experience.Wake up America,the violent people is who we should focus on because they are dangerous and will kill some time most likely.

Fri, 11/23/2007 - 6:42pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Too bad the mainstream media doesn't care.

I searched "unlocking america" in Google and found no major news site published a story on it yet.

Why is that?

Our movement needs to stop looking directly to the government for change and start looking indirectly via the mainstream media.

If the majority of voters don't know about this (or any important facet of our cause), how far will letters, petitions, etc. to Congress take us?

The government doesn't care, because not enough voters care.

The media is looking for stories. Doesn't this report qualify?

A massive public relations effort within the mainstream spotlight is what we need.

Fri, 11/23/2007 - 7:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

reflects what people come at them with. If enough people were to send them copies of reports like this, especially getting them to sympathetic columnists, they would eventually use the materials. I send these things to the editorial board of my local paper on a regular basis.

Remember, if they don't hear it from us they don't hear it.

Legislators are the same way. Don't let the cynicism of skeptics dissuade you, members of congress need to hear from us and they need to hear it often and from a lot of us.

This week a member of LEAP confronted John McCain on the campaign trail and engaged him in a debate about reform. We need to do this across the nation. The medical cannabis movement has had great success with direct action. For the first time ALL of the Democratic presidential candidates have come out supporting some form of easing of the medical pot restrictions. This happened ONLY because the medical pot people confronted them on the campaign trail.

There are more members of congress opposing aspects of the drug war now than ever before.

Humbold county commissioners a couple of months back passed a resolution to ask their representative in congress to oppose the pot war.

The United States Conference of Mayors passed a resolution this past summer saying the "the war on drugs has failed.." They see the issue.

The mayor of Newark, N.J. is threatening to hold anti drug war public protests.

We have momentum. We need courage and strong hearts.

If 10% of the readers of this chronicle were to confront their members of congress and presidential candidates when they come to your town we can create change.

Hound your members of congress. There are only three of them for each reformer. Two senators and one congress-person.

Here in Pennsylvania the gun proliferation issue is big with cop killings getting casual in our cities. The illegal gun market is subsidized by the drug black market. I have been writing to the state legislative judiciary committee pointing out the connections.

Start a blog focusing on drug war issues in your state and confronting your politicians.

Remember, if they don't hear it from us they don't hear it.

Sat, 11/24/2007 - 9:29am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There's a story out now, that's mostly just getting attention from the Massachusetts media. It's a bout a guy who was set free by a judge that Romney appointed when he was governor. The guy later killed two people.

It's really bizarre to me how everyone is blaming the judge for letting this killer out of jail, and blaming Romney for appointing the judge. Why is it that nobody realizes, this sort of thing happens a lot because the jails and prisons are bursting at the seams with non-violent offenders?

Check out Google News for the articles on this, and post some comments linking to the Unlocking America report.

Sat, 11/24/2007 - 1:13pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

An interesting note... as governor, Romney commissioned a study on corrections reform. The report noted that 16% of the state's inmates were serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and recommended eliminating that, through sentencing reform.

The report is here:

Sat, 11/24/2007 - 2:03pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree 100% with getting the media to publish more stories about the war on drugs and how it has failed. It has given the Federal Government the right to take a drug addict and enhance them with ANYTHING found in there home or on there person and make them a violent or career criminal sentencing them with mandatory 10 plus years to a warehouse in which they call prison. I have seen this first hand with my loved one and the story's you hear go on and on. If society were more informed on where their tax money is being spent and how much goes towards housing a non violent prisoner this would get much notice. The question is who is willing to bring it to the public's attention?

When Dateline focused on the internet predators it was a major and massive story that got noticed by all and needed to be. If Dateline or any other major news show would take notice of the overflowing prison population and the low to medium offenders doing this time and family’s who are suffering and being torn apart by the system I believe society may view criminals in another way and that they are people to and deserve another chance at being a productive citizen.


Mrs. Lorie Brydon

Sun, 11/25/2007 - 12:34pm Permalink

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