What You Need To Know About Holder's Drug Sentencing Proposal and the State of America's Prison Population

Attorney general urges U.S. Sentencing Commission to back reduced sentences for some drug offenders


What you need to know about drug sentencing reform today, 3/13/2014:

Today Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a proposal that he says will reduce the federal prison population by at least 6,500 in five years. According to CNN, the U.S. Sentencing Commission may vote on the proposal in April.

According to the Justice Department, the proposed plans will affect 70 percent of drug offenders currently in the criminal justice system, and will reduce sentences by an average of 11 months.

Holder's endorsement today is not the first time that he has advocated for drug sentencing reforms. Last August, Holder announced that the Department of Justice would not pursue mandatory minimums for some non-violent drug offenders.  

The state of America's prison population:

The United States, which makes up roughly 5 percent of the world's population, houses about 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

The federal prison system currently has around 216,000 prisoners, a little more than 40 percent of whom are behind bars for drug offences.

The chart below, from the Prison Policy Initiative, breaks down just where American prisoners are locked up, and the various crimes with which they're charged..

As appalling as the U.S. prison population and drug policies are, the prison population in the U.S. has been falling since 2009, as The New York Times explains:

The nation's prison population peaked in 2009 at more than 1.6 million inmates. Since then, as state budgets have tightened and crime has hit record low levels, that number has declined each year.

Public attitudes have also changed. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have legalized it for recreational purposes.

A chart from The American Prospect based on data from the the Bureau of Justice Statistics illustrating this decline is below:

Read more from Reason on sentencing here

NEXT: White House Has Its Own Way of Screwing with Senate Torture Probe – Ignoring It

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “The United States, which makes up roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, houses about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”

    This might be a wild observations, but here it goes… Has anybody ever considered that in other countries, their justice system (including police) is either completely irrelevant or corrupt? Or also, that criminals are simply just executed when caught doing a crime? Those to facts alone would definitely keep prison populations down significantly. I’m not arguing that the USA isn’t in need of prison reform and drug law, but I think those statistics might just be a little skewed without considering those facts.

    1. It makes sense that those factors would explain part of the difference in many countries.

      TY for comment.

    2. I agree overall – there’s never just one factor to such a large thing like this.

      Heh, yeah, there is some corruption in police forces around the world, but from my experience internationally (in Asia), it seems like the cops don’t really bother with a lot of silly crimes like they would here.

      Not that corrupt/lazy cops are a great thing, buuut as long as they’re just overlooking minor, victimless crimes, it’s something our police could learn from.

      There’s also sentencing lengths too. The rest of the developed world tends to have short sentences with low recidivism while we tend to say, “hey, hacker, you get 15 years and have to pay a MILLION dollars in fines!”

      1. “Not that corrupt/lazy cops are a great thing, buuut as long as they’re just overlooking minor, victimless crimes, it’s something our police could learn from.”

        “By 23, those numbers climb to 49% for black men, 44% for Hispanic men and 38% for white men.”…..d/4669225/
        Speaking as an old fart, I certainly didn’t see those sorts of numbers growing up, and I can’t believe the culture has changed to that degree.
        I have no proof, but I’m suspicious that things we did have been ‘criminalized’ such that I might have been arrested a couple of times.
        Would I have been busted for buying smokes out of a machine? Damming creeks in the woods?

        1. Thank you for the link!

          And agreed. I’m fairly young (early 30s), but I remember people saying kids/adults got nabbed by police for a lot more minor things than they did in the 1970s/80s.

          And even those past 15 or so years, I’ve noticed and heard it’s a lot worse now. Almost everyone I’ve met has had scores of tickets or has been arrested at some point. And I’m not “down and dirty” in the streets, mixing it up – I work at a college. Many colleagues and students have had encounters with the law.

          Anecdotal, sure, but it says something overall.

          And interesting to see the percentage disparity for the differing ethnicities – but it’s not as large as some would probably like to claim. 10% isn’t that much, really.

    3. That really doesn’t jive with the actual data though.…..2page1.stm

      1. Yeh, it’s about percentages/corruption, laws, etc. Russia is basically Putin-land and has an incredibly corrupt police force…which leads to a high per-capita prison population. Similar to Brazil, Ukraine, and a few more.

        The US has a lot of drug criminals in place, along with some victimless crime folks. Fraud is bad deal, for sure – but when they get 20 years, it adds to the prison population which compounds.

        If the drug related offences are approximately 40% of federal crimes, which may be contiguous with state prisons, and they receive long sentences, it would only build up the number of prisoners.

        Corrupt police forces are never good, per se – they often just become tools of the state (Russia…well, most other countries…)

        I personally think that the justice system needs serious reform in how it deals with minor drug offences and victimless crimes is all.

    4. One could argue, conversely, that the high incarceration rate in the US is due to high police corruption and rampant prosecutorial misconduct. Which claim would of course be subject to verification, as would your claim that US law enforcement was especially virtuous.

      1. Didn’t mean to imply that US cops are virtuous by any means.

        Anecdotal, perhaps, but I’m a person who has been pulled over, personally searched, as well as having my vehicle searched. A few times. Hmm. I’m white, fairly indistinctive (no mohawk, face tattoos, or revolutionary stickers on my car…)…

        I also remember a time a cop pulled me over because “my muffler was loud” – meanwhile, about twenty feet away, some obviously underage kids were holding booze and kicking at a door to an unlit house. Huh. Wonder why they stuck with me?

        If I had to put a little twist on it, we need the “right” kind of corrupt cops – ones who overlook petty crimes that aren’t crimes, instead of the MO many seem to have now, where it’s pick on the easiest target, get some quota fill, quick cash, move on. That is corruption, out and out.

        American cops, percentage-wise, are a bit better than those internationally, sure. But that doesn’t mean I’m less wary of them.

    5. Fair enough.

      How about we just compare to democratic First World countries with constitutional protections for defendants’ rights then?…..ation_rate

      The US incarcerates 716 per 100K individuals.

      New Zealand comes closest to us at 193 (other than the British territories of the Caribbean area). Even a state as infamously punitive as Singapore clocks in at 230.

    6. Nah. Canada’s police are arguably better than the US’s. Way more respect from the populace, way less cases of over-reach. We have way less people in jail, per capita.

      You jail too many people. Period. According to the rest of the world. It is your country, you can do what you want. But, it isn’t helping as far as anyone else in the world can see.

      But, you also have a big underclass in your inner city ghettos who are way more dangerous, as a group, than our criminals.

  2. Funny thing: The first time I heard about how US drug laws often imprisons for victim-less crimes, was from the mouth of a certain Dr. Paul.

    It wasn’t from a Black-First US AG trying to free “his” people.

    Intellectual honesty trumps sentimental privilege every time. Holder’s just a copy-cat.

  3. 216,000 federal prisoners; over 40% for drug offenses (86,400+); the proposal will effect 70% of those (60,480), and the federal prison population will fall 6,500 in 5 years. Either the math is way off, or this isn’t much of a reform.

    1. Politico math, for sure.

      I bet we’ll see that those 6,500 prisoners are ones that are most valuable for political reasons to Holder, et al.

    2. In 5 years at current rates the prison population will likely drop by more than 6,500 if he did nothing.

      The population is aging. Crime is going down. Nothing unusual. Even hard core criminals cause less trouble when they hit their sixties.

  4. The number I’m interested in is the number of lawyers serving time.

    1. When dealing with the government, the only statistic that actually matters is whether we will run out of ammo before they do.

      1. ^This. Hahah!

        Maybe the magical 6,500 are incarcerated cops, corrupt judges, overzealous DAs who commit crimes to punish “crime,” victims of affluenza, corrupt politicians…

        Er, wait. Those criminals never serve time…

  5. From the Prison Policy Initiative report:

    “At least 17 states and the federal government operate facilities for the purposes of detaining people convicted of sexual crimes after their sentences are complete. These facilities and the confinement there are technically civil, but in reality are quite like prisons. They are often run by state prison systems, are often located on prison grounds, and most importantly, the people confined there are not allowed to leave.”

    … What?

    1. This isn’t a new thing. Disgusting? Absolutely. But not new.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.