Press Release  | 01/12/2005

Supreme Court Drug Ruling Throws Sentencing Guidelines into Doubt

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Largest Percentage of Federal Inmates are Non-Violent Drug Offenders, Costing Thousands of Lives and Billions of Dollars
Today

This morning, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in two drug cases that will impact the entire federal sentencing guideline system. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal criminal sentencing guidelines advisory instead of mandatory, granting judges more discretion. Advocates noted that the largest proportion of federal prisoners are there for non-violent drug offenses, and urged Congress to take this historic opportunity to implement a more cost-effective and humane drug sentencing framework.

"Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the federal sentencing guidelines is how they clog the nation's prisons with nonviolent drug offenders," said Judy Appel of the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of Legal Affairs. "More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for a drug offense and nearly three quarters of all federal prisoners are non-violent offenders with no history of violence. The Supreme Court's decision in the Booker/Fanfan cases gives Congress an unparalleled opportunity to correct this wasteful course and follow the lead of many states by providing community-based treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders."

There are several working models that Congress can look to when fixing a system that has failed to effectively address the problem of substance abuse. For example, in 2000 California enacted Proposition 36, which annually diverts 35,000 people from jails and prisons into drug treatment - over half of whom are accessing treatment for the first time - saving lives and taxpayers' money. Five other states have since passed similar legislation.

These statistics on federal prison populations were compiled by the Sentencing Project:

  • As of 2003, 161, 673 people were held in federal prisons, an increase of 81% from 1995
  • Only 13% of federal prisoners are serving time for a violent offense
  • More than half (55%) of federal prisoners are serving time for a drug offense
  • 72.1% are non-violent offenders with no history of violence
  • 34.4% are first-time non-violent offenders
  • From 1992 to 2002, the average time served in prison for a drug offense increased by 31%, from 32.7 months to 42.9 months
  • African American drug offenders have a 20% greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white drug offenders, and Hispanics have a 40% greater chance

Tony Newman at (212) 613-8026 or Elizabeth M

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