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August 1, 2012

Commentary links drug war realities to latest DOJ letter to US Sentencing Commission

Phillip Smith writing at Drug War Chronicle has this notable new commentary reacting t0 the Justice Department's recent letter to the US Sentencing Commission (discussed here).  The commentary is headlined "DOJ to Sentencing Commission: Fewer Prisoners, Please," and here are excerpts:

In a congressionally mandated annual report to the US Sentencing Commission on the operation of federal sentencing guidelines, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said continuing increases in the federal prison populations and spending are "unsustainable" and called on the commission to work with other stakeholders to reduce federal corrections costs.  But the report failed to address the single largest factor driving the growth in the federal prison population: the huge increase in the number of federal prisoners doing time for drug offenses.

According to data compiled by Drug War Facts and based on Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, in 1980, there were some 19,000 federal prisoners, with some 4,500 having a drug offense as their most serious offense.  By 2010, the number of federal prisoners had increased tenfold to more than 190,000, and a whopping 97,000 were doing time for drug offenses, also a tenfold increase.  The percentage of drug offenders increased during that period from roughly 25% of all federal prisoners in 1980 to 51.7% in 2010....

With budgets flat, criminal justice spending has to get more bang for the buck, the DOJ letter said. "We must ensure that our federal sentencing and corrections system is strong but smart; credible, productive and just; and budgetarily sound," the letter said.  "But maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending.  The federal prison population — and prison expenditures — have been increasing for years. In this period of austerity, these increases are incompatible with a balanced crime policy and are unsustainable....

It is clear what is driving the growth in the federal prison population and the federal corrections budget: drug war prisoners.  While the Obama administration DOJ is to be credited with taking some steps that move in the direction of reducing the number of prisoners and the corrections budget, such as supporting the partial reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, its failure to directly address the consequences of policies of mass imprisonment of drug offenders means that it is missing the elephant in the room.

While spotlighting a critical reality about the real budget/prison costs of the federal drug war in light of lean budget times, this commentary relies on some old data.  According to the BOP weekly population report (available here), there are now 218,186 federal prisoners, which likely means there are surely now many more than 100,000 defendants doing federal time (and getting food, housing and medical care at federal taxpayer expense) for drug offenses.

August 1, 2012 at 07:50 AM | Permalink

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"The US Department of Justice (DOJ) said continuing increases in the federal prison populations and spending are "unsustainable" and called on the commission to work with other stakeholders to reduce federal corrections costs."

Ha! And yet the same DOJ continues to file mandatory minimum charges every place it can and argues for severe sentences otherwise. Me thinks the DOJ speaks with forked tongue.

Posted by: anon16 | Aug 1, 2012 12:12:29 PM

LOL it's a govt agencty anon16 OF COURSE it speaks with a forked tongue!

hell it would probably lie when the TRUTH would sound better!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 3, 2012 5:18:39 PM

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