WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
2 Feb 2015 | Commentary | News

The United States Rethinks its Draconian Drug Sentencing Policies

WOLA/IDPC Analysis
By Elizabeth Lincoln*

Across the Americas, an unprecedented debate on drug policy reform is underway. While a regional consensus on what form those reforms should take remains elusive, there are at least two issues where consensus is growing: the need to address drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and ensure proportionality in sentencing for drug-related crimes. Draconian drug laws were often adopted in Latin American countries with the encouragement – if not outright diplomatic, political and economic pressure – from the U.S. government. Those laws have fed the region’s prison crisis, creating humanitarian disasters (Brazil being just one example) affecting the most vulnerable sectors of society, even as drug trafficking-related crime, violence, and corruption have continued to expand.

Yet recent domestic criminal justice reforms suggest that the United States is now changing its approach to these issues within its own borders. Most international attention on drug policy issues in the United States has focused on local and state initiatives to decriminalize marijuana use and, more recently in the states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska to create legal, regulated recreational marijuana markets. (In the District of Columbia, voters approved an initiative to legalize marijuana, and the City Council will be charged with implementation). At the same time, however, growing popular outrage over harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes, the racial bias in their application and the cost to individuals, families and communities across the country is now being taken seriously in the nation’s capital. U.S. officials from both political parties increasingly recognize that the enormous resources that must go towards prisons impede addressing other priorities, such as promoting citizen security and preventing human trafficking, and that the way in which drug laws have been applied in the United States has eroded confidence in the U.S. justice system. 

The states have led the way with sentencing reform efforts, reducing incarceration rates with no discernable negative impact; on the contrary, in most of those states crime rates actually fell. The success of these reforms is now being recognized at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Justice has put forward numerous initiatives that could significantly reduce the number of federal prisoners, such as the Smart on Crime Initiative, the Clemency Initiative, and the Drugs Minus Two Act, all described in greater detail below. Additionally, various reform bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress, with rare bipartisan support. 
With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Recognizing growing evidence against mass incarceration, between 2012 and 2013, the number of people incarcerated in federal prison declined for the first time since 1980. Advances have been limited, though; during the same period, state prison populations increased by a larger amount, resulting in a net increase in prison population nationally between 2012 and 2013. Considerable decreases may take several years to be seen, though, as many reforms shorten prison sentences rather than eliminate them altogether.

Ultimately, significant drug sentencing reform in the United States depends on the U.S. Congress enacting legislative changes. Despite bipartisan support for addressing the problem of overincarceration, political gridlock in the nation’s capital means that such legislative action is not likely to happen anytime soon. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Justice’s reform initiatives will clearly benefit a sector, albeit small, of the U.S. prison population and should help create an environment conducive to more significant reforms in the future. Most importantly for Latin American governments and societies, the U.S. government—after leading the crusade for severe drug laws – is now sending a powerful message to countries across the hemisphere that the time has come to reform unjust drug laws.

To read the full analysis, please click here.

*Elizabeth Lincoln was a WOLA Research Assistant. This memo was edited by WOLA Senior Fellow Coletta Youngers.