U.S. rolls back war on drugs

KPC News Service

Recently, the federal prison system began releasing more than 6,000 drug offenders whose sentences have been reduced.

Why is it happening? Because last year the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced punishment for future drug crimes, then applied the changes to past offenders.

Eventually, the changes could mean early freedom for nearly half of the 100,000 drug offenders in federal prisons. Those releases will come gradually, with another 8,500 inmates likely to get out of prisons a year from now.

The average reduction cut two years off an offender’s sentence. The average inmate being released has served 8 1/2 years of an original sentence of 10 1/2 years.

The inmates won’t hit the streets immediately. Reports say about two-thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release.

The other one-third of released inmates are being deported, because they were in the United States illegally when they were arrested.

Of the newly freed people who are staying in America, only 59 of them are Hoosiers, according to reports.

The releases come in reaction to widespread agreement that the sentences they received were too harsh in the first place. Most of the prisoners being freed were convicted under conspiracy laws, which say that one person can be held accountable for the total weight of drugs possessed by everyone involved in a drug deal — resulting in longer prison terms.

Every person being released had to be reviewed by a judge, who was supposed to consider public safety in deciding whether to grant a sentencing reduction.

The releases appeal to people who support a less punitive approach to drug offenders, treating addiction more as an illness and less as a crime.

They respond to concerns that U.S. prisons are overcrowded by 30 percent or more, according to news reports. Instead of building more prisons, the government will save nearly $30,000 per year for every drug offender who is released early.

Setting nonviolent offenders free also will help reduce the unfortunate statistic that the United States has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any major nation on the planet.

According to one report, the U.S. population has grown by about one-third since 1980, but the federal prison inmate population has increased by about 800 percent in the same time span.

This may be only the beginning of trying to change that trend. Both the U.S. Senate and House are considering bills to reduce federal sentences for nonviolent drug offenders even further. They appear to be finding support from both political parties.

Changing federal laws makes a good start. But most drug offenders are in state prisons — not federal institutions.

Indiana began doing its part to reduce prison time for nonviolent drug offenders with new rules that took effect in 2014.

The changes can be controversial. Shortly after the new rules became law, Indiana found itself facing a new drug crisis involving abuse of pain medication and heroin. That has brought renewed calls for getting tough on drug offenders.

For now, however, the tide of public and professional opinion seems to hold that the “war on drugs” went overboard in filling prisons with people who posed minimal threats to public safety.

Indiana and the nation should continue to look for better ways to deal with drug offenders — including more focus on treatment and rehabilitation instead of punishment.

Freeing people from unnecessary imprisonment can make for a more productive society and save tax dollars. But most of all, our goal should be making sure that the punishment fits the crime.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.