Editorial: Who’s in our prisons? What U.S. needs is effective sentencing guidelines for drug crimes
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Aug 13, 2013 | 1822 views |  0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In about the time it takes a low-level drug offender to serve out a lengthy prison sentence, many Americans have changed their minds on illegal narcotics and incarceration.

It’s about time.

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. criminal justice system has been on a war footing when it comes to combating illegal narcotics. Laws, both on the federal and state levels, were written so that the guilty served extremely lengthy sentences. No distinction was made between the violent and the non-violent offender who, if he were offered treatment instead of time behind bars, might return to the straight and narrow. Judges lost almost all discretion thanks to mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines.

The results of this so-called War on Drugs are costly.

Federal prisons hold 217,000 inmates while more than 1.3 million are in state facilities.

The number of prisoners in the United States has grown by 800 percent since 1980. Many of these prison systems, including the one in Alabama, are dangerously overcrowded.

Twenty-five percent of the world’s inmate population is held in the United States, which accounts for about 5 percent of the global population.

About half of federal prisoners are behind bars because of a drug offense.

The federal prison system spends $28,000 annually on each inmate.

All this led U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week to call for reforming of prison sentences.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” the attorney general said when speaking Monday to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco.

Locking away drug offenders willy nilly as part of the War on Drugs, according to Holder, has been “ineffective and unsustainable.” That’s a welcome admission, though it’s been slow in coming.

Many states reached the conclusion years ago when prison costs began to strain state budgets. Many states believe it’s smarter and a better use of taxpayer dollars to treat the underlying addiction of a non-violent drug offender rather than lock him up in an overcrowded prison and hope he gets clean.

Let’s all hope that we are at the end of the era when getting “tough” on crime meant the creation of costly and ineffective drug laws.
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