America’s war on drugs has last lasted for decades with no clear winner and an unacceptable number of casualties. The consequences can still be seen and felt here in Wisconsin and in every other state. But now, as public attitudes about drug use and abuse continue to evolve, actions are being taken that could reduce prison overcrowding and amend disproportionately harsh sentences given to non-violent drug offenders.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Obama administration recently announced intentions to offer clemency to qualifying federal prisoners who are currently serving lengthy sentences for drug crimes. Inmates meeting specific criteria are urged to apply for clemency and could have their sentences reduced.
The DOJ has announced that it will screen applications and that ideal candidates for clemency will meet approximately six criteria. Some of these include:
- Having already served 10 years or more of their sentence
- Having a clean record of conduct while in prison
- Having no ties to gangs or criminal organizations
- Having no history of violence
Part of the rationale for the clemency offer has to do with the way that drug sentencing laws have changed in recent years. Starting in the 1980s, politicians really began pushing for laws seeking to get “tough on drug crime.” These laws essentially resulted in rigid and harsh drug sentencing guidelines such as mandatory minimums for possession of certain drugs in certain quantities. Individuals convicted for crack cocaine offenses often suffered the worst penalties. If those same individuals and crimes were prosecuted and sentenced today, defendants would likely receive much more reasonable sentences.
The current clemency offer is only being extended to inmates in federal prisons. Drug-related crimes account for nearly half of the 216,000 inmates currently in custody in federal prisons. While it is unclear how many will qualify for clemency, this unprecedented clemency offer represents a much-needed course correction in the war on drugs – a war that has destroyed too many lives.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "White House encouraging nonviolent inmates to apply for clemency," April 23, 2014