More than half of all federal inmates are serving drug sentences

Arizona residents probably already know that lawmakers have harshly criticized minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Many of these sentencing laws were passed in the 1980s as the introduction of crack cocaine into America’s cities triggered a surge in violent crime.

Between 1980 and 2012, the federal prison population increased by almost 800 percent, and more than half of the 200,000 or so inmates in federal correctional facilities are serving sentences for drug offenses. The Urban Institute released a report in that detailed the 2012 demographics of federal prisoners, and it revealed that less than a quarter of them are Caucasians. The study also found that most drug offenders were charged with crimes related to cocaine, and that more than one-third of all federal inmates serving drug-related sentences had minimal criminal records before being incarcerated.

Statistics such as these have led to vocal calls for sentencing reform, and the Senate Judiciary Committee responded by passing a sweeping bipartisan bill which curbs many mandatory drug sentences. The Justice Department is also working to return discretion to judges on sentencing.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may attempt to avoid minimum sentences by seeking to have drug charges reduced or dismissed during plea negotiations. Prosecutors work under onerous caseloads, and they are often judged based on their conviction rates. This can sometimes lead to negotiated pleas being accepted even when the evidence in a drug case seems compelling. However, defense attorneys may advocate for the dismissal of charges against their clients in situations where law enforcement has stepped beyond boundaries firmly established by the law.