Those questions can largely be answered with two words: "mandatory minimums." In order to appear tough on crime in the 1980s and 1990s, politicians pushed for laws that imposed lengthy minimum sentences for individuals convicted of certain drug crimes. Mandatory-minimum laws have arguably done almost nothing to reduce the amount of drug use and drug sales in the United States. Meanwhile, these laws have managed to fill America's prisons with predominately non-violent drug offenders.
Thankfully, the Obama administration recently announced that it wants to take steps to bypass mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he and the Justice Department will be instructing federal prosecutors to charge low-level drug-crimes defendants in ways that circumvent mandatory minimum requirements. This would most likely be done by purposely omitting the amount of drugs involved when filling out official charging documents.
In a recent speech, Holder said: "I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
The Obama administration is reportedly pursuing only changes that do not require congressional approval to implement. Considering how much gridlock currently plagues both the U.S. House and Senate, this seems like a practical move.
Thankfully, a few lawmakers including Utah Senator Mike Lee are teaming up with others outside of their own parties and are pushing legislation that will allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimums when sentencing certain drug offenders.
The United States still has much work to do in order to repair the damage caused by its overzealous war on drugs. However, these recent actions seem to be a step in the right direction.
Source: Reuters, “U.S. moves to curb long, mandatory drug sentences,” Dan Levine and David Ingram, Aug. 12, 2013