Tough sentencing laws and harsh punishments doled out for drug-related offenses are often blamed for mass incarceration. In July, President Obama even declared that the country has “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”
But should the War on Drugs take all the blame?
While it has undoubtedly played a role in mass incarceration, it would be a mistake to characterize the War on Drugs as the sole driver, or to think that reforming drug sentencing laws alone will be sufficient to end the problem.
Roughly half of all inmates under federal correctional authority in 2014 were incarcerated for drug-related offenses, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In contrast, only about 16 percent of inmates in state prisons, which house far more prisoners than federal facilities, were incarcerated for drug-related offenses in 2013.
If everyone in America currently held for a drug-related offense in state and federal prison were released, that would reduce those prison populations by approximately 20 percent. That would be significant in its own right, but it still wouldn’t be sufficient to end mass incarceration.
It’s easier to win popular support for the release of nonviolent offenders as opposed to violent criminals. But if the nation wants to end mass incarceration, Americans are going to have to consider ways to cut down on the violent offender prison population as well. In 2013, roughly half of all state prisoners were incarcerated for violent crime, a percentage that suggests that any serious effort to reduce the prison population will need to grapple with violent as well as nonviolent offenders.
U.S. sentencing laws are too strict in general. A tough-on-crime mentality has led to overly stringent policies like mandatory minimums that result in people spending too long in prison.
The 1980s and ’90s saw a wave of laws enacted at the federal and state level enacting mandatory minimums and tough sentencing policies. Advocates for criminal-justice reform frequently point to harsh sentencing laws as a driver of mass incarceration.
But to what extent are mandatory minimums contributing to the problem?
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, argues that despite the existence of laws calling for lengthy sentences, many inmates actually spend far less time in prison than the maximum amount possible. There could be various reasons for this, such as inmates getting released from prison earlier than their sentences initially dictated due to parole, or prosecutors seeking shorter sentences than the maximum allowed. “We have very long sentences on the books but most people actually spend a fairly short amount of time in prison,” Pfaff says. So even if mandatory minimum laws were reformed or repealed, it’s likely that still wouldn’t solve the problem.