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Tailwind: increased clamor for federal sentencing changes

Like other states, California has a number of federal prisons. Like other states, California’s lock-up facilities for federal offenders are challenged by their high number of occupants.

In fact, overcrowding in both state and federal prisons across the country is rampant, with commentators on the criminal justice system routinely stating that something must be done, and soon, to address the country’s swollen and ballooning prison population.

By any global comparison, that population is simply unrivaled. In a recent article on the subject, the New York Times notes that the United States houses more prisoners than any other country, with about one of every 100 adults being behind bars.

A high percentage of those prisoners are serving time following convictions on drug offenses, with many of those inmates being first-time and nonviolent offenders. The Times notes that about half of the nation’s 215,000 federal prisoners are behind bars on drug charges.

There are many critics of that reality, and their demands for immediate change are becoming increasingly strident and persistent.

As is evident from recent polling and legal developments in a number of states, many Americans are softening their views on marijuana as a recreational and medicinal drug. It is also frequently noted that race is an evident factor in sentencing outcomes for drug crimes, with a disproportionately high number of federal inmates convicted on drug charges being African-Americans.

Economic reality has also emerged front and center as a rallying cry for change in the prison system. Reportedly, about one-third of the budget allocated to the United States Department of Justice is spent annually on prison upkeep. Attorney General Anthony Holder calls that “financially unsustainable.”

The attorney general is a strong voice pushing for change. Earlier this year, he instructed federal prosecutors to not charge nonviolent drug defendants with crimes having mandatory minimum sentences. He followed that up by recently endorsing a proposal by the United States Sentencing Commission to drop the average length of a federal sentence for convicted drug dealers.

Change is clearly in the wind. We will be sure to keep readers duly informed of any material developments that occur in federal sentencing policies.

Source: The New York Times, “Holder endorses proposal to reduce drug sentences in latest sign of shift,” Matt Apuzzo, March 13, 2014

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