Reality Check: U.S. Non-Violent Drug Offenders Incarceration Rate Is Shameful

Nearly 6,000 federal prisoners are about to be set free.

It’s part of a new program that is releasing non-violent drug offenders after three decades of policies that have kept them locked up. But is 6,000 barely scratching the surface of what needs to happen?

This is a Reality Check you won’t get anywhere else.

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At the end of this month, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will release about 6,000 federal prison inmates who have been locked up for years for non-violent drug offenses.

This will be the largest one-time release of federal prisoner ever. It’s an effort, we are told, to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

We’re going to talk about those issues in a moment. But first, how was this decision made?

We knew we had a problem in America with incarceration,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. “A nation with 5 percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Here’s how this works: the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes, reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

That means within one month, 6,000 federal prisoners will be released.

Then, between November 1 of this year and November 1, 2016, just over another 8,500 prisoners will be released.

In all, the panel estimates that 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison could now qualify for early release. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year.

But they didn’t just do it on their own.

They held two public hearings in which members heard testimony from then-Attorney General Holder. They also heard testimony from federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates.

In addition to all of that, the panel also reviewed more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority in favor of the change.

So how badly needed was this change? Since congress created mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to more than 214,000 prisoners.

The U.S. has more people behind bars—2.3 million—than any other country in the world.

The reality here is that the vast majority of people behind bars for drug offenses, which is one quarter of all prison inmates, are not there because they are endangering society, harming other people, or leading a drug cartel.

More than 50 percent of them were arrested for non-violent drug offenses.

Only 15 percent of all federal drug offenders had a weapon involved in the offense.

Only 6.6 percent of all federal drug offenders were considered leaders of a drug conspiracy.

The vast majority are locked up for something called a victimless crime. And if that is the case, then here is the big question:

Why are we taking so long to release these 46,000 people?

That is what you need to know.

While many people are applauding the release of these 6,000 prisoners—and here’s your reality check—these soon-to-be-released prisoners have served, on average, eight and one-half years in prison.

Eight and one-half years locked in a cell, and the only reason they are only getting out now is because they committed no violence against anyone, because they weren’t involved in a drug operation and because the worst crime they have committed was a drug offense.

When you put it that way, is eight and one-half years prison time—is any prison time—something to be proud of as a nation?


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