Over the years, the laws in the United States based around federal drug charges have changed dramatically, and they’re still changing with the Rockefeller Law Reform as a foundation for more lenient judgments on drug related nonviolent crimes. With prisons busting at the seams and millions of dollars being spent in order to properly care for the health and well being of criminals in this country, the government and judicial system is constantly looking to find alternative methods of punishment and reform in order to get criminals and drug pushers off of the streets. This isn’t to say that the government wishes to do away with the legalities set in place for criminal acts regarding drugs, just that the charges should be more lenient in low level cases.
The Rockefeller Law
In 1973, Nelson A Rockefeller created the Rockefeller law which made it mandatory that the minimum sentence for possession of narcotics be drastically increased. This was in reaction to a continuously increasing crime rate in connection with drugs, particularly heroin in New York City. The New York Times reports:
“The laws mandated that a conviction for possessing four ounces or more of heroin or cocaine be punished by at least 15 years to life in prison.”
This law made the punishment for drug offenses equal to that of second degree murder, and is considered a huge milestone in the war on drugs in The United States. Due to this alteration in criminal charges, authorities hoped to see the statistics of drug use drop, but instead what they found was a surge between 1973 and 1994 of 35% in the prison populations, almost entirely resulting in convictions of lower-level drug charges that previously wouldn’t have warranted sentences of this magnitude. Unfortunately, as arrests increased, drug use didn’t decrease, and although there was much debate and criticism over whether or not this new law was effective, several other states soon followed suit and began altering their incarceration laws. One noteworthy law passed in Michigan was referred to as the 650 life, which incarcerated traffickers who were caught delivering 650 grams or more of narcotics.
Alternative Methods Of Reform
Alternative methods of reform were suggested from the beginning of the Rockefeller law ruling suggesting that a more practical approach to taming the drug problem in New York and the country was to tackle it through addiction treatments at rehabilitation centers. This suggestion was overlooked in favor of the more severe sentencing until 2004 when the law was finally altered, and nonviolent charges involving drugs began receiving sentences that revolved around treatment rather than incarceration. Drugfree.com states:
“Sending substance-abusing state prisoners to community-based treatment programs instead of prisons could reduce crime and save billions of dollars, a new study concludes.”
Although this helped slightly in reducing the number of criminals entering the prison system, it did nothing to permanently resolve the issue countrywide. This has caused a current struggle amongst lawmakers and government officials to determine efficient ways of dealing with the overpopulation issues effecting federal prisons across The United States. Further forays into the option of treatment over prison time has been an ongoing research effort, and the possibility for similar drug related criminal charges to be reduced or transferred to this form of punishment is under consideration.
Why It Works
Although it isn’t a guarantee that federal drug charges without violence will get a judgment including rehabilitation rather than a life sentence, this type of ruling has been a proven technique in the war against drugs. Statistics show that those who are admitted to a program rather than a prison cell are much more likely to continue rehabilitation rather than land themselves behind bars once again. Whereas, those charged and imprisoned, often commit the same crimes again upon release and wind up back where they started; rehabs.com writes:
“30 percent of people who underwent drug rehabilitation received a new jail sentence within a 12-month period compared to 51 percent of those who didn’t undergo drug rehab.”
It may seem like a small success to some, but when you consider the number of prisoners being held on rulings involving drugs, and the amount of people who gain release only to be locked up once more, this 21 percent jump in data is a huge deal, and has the ability to aid in the overpopulation issues. It may not completely rectify the health and safety concerns that come along with too many inmates per prison, but it certainly helps bring the numbers down, and even a small success is a success worth noting.
Currently, Attorney General Eric Holder, and even President Obama himself, have been reported to be searching for ways to rectify the population crisis in prisons, and although there are quite a few ideas in the works including altering the sentence time for drug charges in general, treatment programs are also on the docket for review. Joe Palazzolo and Ashby Jones of The Wall Street Journal explain:
“Such programs could soon become commonplace in the federal system. Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a series of policy changes this past week aimed at reducing the federal prisoner population, including a full-throated endorsement of diversion programs.”
More recently, Holder called for reduced sentencing for the lower level drug offenders, and at the moment the outlook is positive for approval by the agency that selects sentencing policies in federal cases. Although not all drug offenders would be affected by the policy change, it is thought that about seventy percent of those in the criminal justice system would be, and on average it would cause a reduction of roughly one year.
Whatever method of sentencing is chosen to be put into place by the federal justice department, the changes should help decrease prison populations, which will improve on the health and safety conditions of inmates all over the country. As it stands, it’s entirely possible that more than one change will take place in order to bring these changes to fruition and make a real difference in the number of criminals placed into prisons on low level drug related acts that shouldn’t warrant the same jail time as those in prison for murder and other high level crimes.