The problems with state and federal drug laws and sentencing guidelines are well-documented. In the majority of states, including Wisconsin, African Americans are many times more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes than whites are. Yet statistics show that the rate of drug use among African Americans is comparable to the rate among whites.
Even when we set aside issues of race, we can see that America's drug laws have arguably done more harm than good. Drug use has not significantly declined due to tougher laws and sentencing requirements, but prison populations have exploded.
We have written several times in the past year about changes being implemented at the Department of Justice. Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to change sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenses as well as President Obama's plans to commute the sentences of certain federal inmates sentenced under laws and policies which have since changed.
Last December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight inmates in federal prison who had been convicted of non-violent drug crimes. Earlier this week, the president commuted sentences for 22 additional inmates with similar convictions.
Despite what some critics may allege, these sentence commutations are not a "free pass" for those convicted of drug crimes. Individuals who have had their sentences commuted would have likely served their time already if the laws and policies back then were the same ones we have today. A representative of the White House counsel noted that "because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years - in some cases more than a decade - longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."
The Obama Administration has had a curious relationship with U.S. drug policy. On one hand, President Obama has been more outspoken than any of his predecessors about the need for significant criminal justice reform, especially regarding non-violent drug offenses. On the other hand, President Obama has used his clemency powers far less than almost any other president. Hopefully, in the final years of his second term, the president will live up to his stated goals and help bring about even more substantive drug policy reforms.
Source: The Drug Policy Alliance, "President Obama Commutes Drug Sentences for 22 People," March 31, 2015