Setting harsh drug sentences that judges couldn't reduce wasn't controversial in the 1980s, when the majority of mandatory minimum sentences were put in place. Today, however, we can see the results of the policy: jails and prisons nationwide are stuffed to capacity.
Not all of the growth in jail and prison populations is due to long sentences for drug offenders. Increasingly, local jails are being used to house pre-trial detainees, non-criminal immigrants and even federal inmates. In fact, a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that most of the growth in state and local incarceration isn't driven by the crime rate at all.
Both crime rates and conviction rates are down nationwide, yet around two-thirds of American states have seen their jail populations double since 1983. The report also says that the most demonstrably effective methods of reducing jail and prison populations are drug diversion and treatment.
Criminal justice reformers surprised by new push for harsh drug punishment
A bipartisan movement to end the failed War on Drugs and reduce mandatory minimum sentences has been around for some time now. The Obama Administration, for example, urged U.S. Attorneys to avoid sending low-level, nonviolent marijuana offenders to prison for years or decades. As we discussed on this blog in May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed that policy.
Yet now it appears those reformers may be backing down. According to NPR, even Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who have long been on board with reducing mandatory minimum drug sentences, have signed on to a new proposal that would add more.
The issue seems to be the opioid crisis and synthetic opioids. Fentanyl and other synthetics are extremely dangerous, even to law enforcement, and are responsible for a record number of overdose deaths.
The bill under consideration by the senate would impose a 10-year sentence on first offenders convicted of selling synthetic opioids like fentanyl. That sentence would double on a second offense.
Yet drug abuse is better addressed as a public health issue than a law enforcement concern -- simply because that approach is more effective.
"We've been here before with this approach in terms of the war on drugs and ramping up sentences, and we know that escalating sentences ... does nothing to help the opioid epidemic," says a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance. "In fact, it only serves to increase the prison population."