One-quarter of the world’s prisoners are in the United States. This is an astronomical number that began growing by leaps and bounds, especially more than 30 years ago when minimum mandatory sentences for drug crimes started to be required.
During the declared “war on drugs,” several federal laws were approved in 1986 and 1988, including some that required minimum sentences in drug cases. From the beginning, judges hated the fact that their discretion got taken away. They could no longer analyze each case on its own when establishing a punishment. Instead, they had to issue sentences set by lawmakers in Washington.
This policy resulted in the growth of the prison population, estimated at 800% since 1980. These sentences, partly because of how the laws were written, were not equal for everyone. They were particularly detrimental for African-Americans and Latinos.
Therefore, simple drug users ended up in prison next to serious criminalsall in prisons that are schools of crime instead of places for rehabilitation, and at a high price for taxpayers. The resulting costs are steep, both in human and material terms.
That is why we welcome the Justice Department’s decision to change its policy so that federal prosecutors no longer request mandatory sentences in minor drug cases that do not involve violence and in which the defendant has no ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels. This also includes new guidelines for “compassionate release” of elderly and sick inmates.
It is necessary for the punishments to fit the crimes and for judges to have discretion in every case. Ideally, Congress will be the one that eliminates laws that impose automatic draconian sentences in drug-related cases.