Are Drug Sentencing Reforms Working?

Crisis often fuels innovation, and if there’s one area of our public infrastructure that has been in crisis and in desperate need of innovation it is our corrections system.  As it stands currently, our criminal justice system is the product of a series of cross-directional policy goals and an almost schizophrenic response to social change.  The result has been to dramatically increase the categorization of criminal behavior, and thus dramatically increase the number of criminal charges and convictions while simultaneously starving facilities of necessary funds required to meet the growing demand of increased incarceration rates.

The result is nothing short of a constitional crisis in our prison system.

We’ve seen two approaches in response to this growing crisis.  One has been the privatization of the prison system where states take tax payer dollars to pay private businesses to run and staff prisons and jails.  These facilities remain private entites and are allowed to operate for-profit. 

So far that experiment has turned out to be nothing short of a humanitarian disaster and corporate boondoggle, with allegations of widespread abuse and corruption being the most common theme among the various enterprises.  Rarely, if ever do these facilities operate at a tax-savings to citizens, not to mention the fact that oversight and accountablility are far more complicated with private, for-profit enterprises.

Another response is to amend criminal laws, particularly criminal sentences.  Many states are re-thinking the idea of mandatory minimum sentences for certain kinds of drug offenses, and as a result, have taken some early stabs at moving away from a punitive approach to drug offenses and towards a therapeutic one, and we are just now starting to see the results. 

A report looking at the first year following New York’s elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences for first and many second-time non-violent felony drug offenses showed that the reforms helped keep an estimated 1600 from entering state prisons.  Instead, offenders were sent to either residential or outpatient treatment programs. 

Since most of these programs last an average of 18 months it is still too early to draw any conclusions as to whether or not diversion has led to a decrease in recidivism, many are optimistic that’s exactly what we’ll see.  They point to early reports of a decrease in felony drug arrests as evidence that treatment, not prison, is the best way to deal with substance-abuse related crimes.

But not everyone is quick to applaud the reforms, and some would even like to tie them recent upticks in violent crime.  Opponents of the reforms argue that ironically the law reduces the incentives for defendants to accept treatment since those treatment programs last at least a year. 

And since judges no longer have to sentence individuals to a minimum prison sentence, many have faced shorter local jail sentences or even probation for the drug offenses.  They suspect this turn-over is related to an increase in violent crime, though they acknowledge that it’s hard to separate out the impact a prolonged recession has had on violent crime. 

The reform’s detractors however do acknowledge that by removing mandatory sentences and reintroducing judicial discretion, the new sentencing laws force prosecutors and judges to develop a much fuller picture of defendants.  The result is a much more appropriate sentence even if diversion to treatment is not appropriate.  Given the current state of our correctional facilities, it’s hard to argue that smarter sentencing is a bad thing. 

photo courtesy of ardbardwell via Flickr


Jay Digiandomenico
J Digiandomenico5 years ago


Meghan K.
Meghan K.5 years ago

for the man who doesnt know where us anti methadone people got our about at the university of life..I was on methadone off and on off and on i know first hand i have every reason in the world to feel that they abuse people not treat them its in humane an out dated..

Tim Stevens
Timothy Stevens7 years ago

What ever happened with the media glimmer on Cheney and his vested interest in a corporation that builds/ runs privatized prisons? It's the new Halliburton, after all.

Lawrence E.
Lawrence H E7 years ago

Ex post facto requires that once a crime is decriminalized or the punishment is reduced,people incarcerated get the lesser sentence.

Gloria Hafner
Gloria H7 years ago

what I want to know..if marihuana ever becomes legal..what happens to prisoners who went in jail for possession years ago? Will they be pardoned, or because it was against the law, do they still serve the complete sentence? It seems stupid to incarcerate someone for something that becomes legal. anyone have an answer?

Larry H.
Larry H.7 years ago

I think for nonviolent drug offenders court ordered rehabilitation for no less then 6 months and up to a year, may be viable. I do think that third time offenders should face some type of jail time.

Marilyn K.
Marilyn K7 years ago

Instead of spending money to incarcerate them, the money should be put into rehabilitation and early education as to the dangers of drug use to yourself and others and the physical consequences to yourself and others.

Walter G.
Walter G7 years ago

Who wrote that question, Jay Leno?

Sherry B.
Sherry B.7 years ago

People who smoke pot and people who occasionally experiment with recreational drugs but don't drive or otherwise put people at risk should be left alone. As for the hard-core addicts, I'm not sure where all you anti-methadone folks got your degrees, but 50 years of study and research proves you wrong. Most heroin addicts function very well on replacement therapy with methadone or Suboxone, a newer replacement medicine. If someone is working, taking care of their family, and being a functional member of society, why should it concern someone who doesn't even know them that they take a medication to stay that way? You probably see methadone patients every day and don't know it; the stigma forces us to keep our treatment hidden from view as it's considered by those who are ignorant and judgemental to not be as valid as someone with abstinence-based recovery. I suspect that the vilification of methadone maintenance has more to do with the "drug-free" recovery world's jealousy of methadone, as if we are still being able to "use." If they feel that way, then something is lacking in their recovery, not mine. All I know is that I haven't committed a crime or used an illegal drug in years. I work and pay my taxes, and finally, after years spent on the fringes of society, I have a life worth living. That I take a medication that enables me to have that life isn't as issue for me, and I sure don't understand it being one for anyone else.

NoEmails H.
beba h7 years ago

People that take drugs dont have a strong survival instinct or just dont have common sense--they disrespect their own lives.