A controversial aspect of New York State Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s legacy is harsh sentencing for drug-related offenses. Commencing in 1973, Rockefeller pushed for mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug-related offenses, even if the dealer or addict was apprehended with a paltry quantity of heroin, cocaine or marijuana. His stance and President Nixon’s “war on drugs” help propel the nation’s lawmakers toward lengthy incarceration for even nonviolent drug offenses.
In some respects the tougher approach worked too well: the U. S. holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s greatest incarcerator, with a 500% increase in prison population over the last 40 years and 2.2+ million individuals in state and federal prisons; nearly 50% of federal inmates are serving drug-related offenses and some of those offenders are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses; there are 13 times more drug-related prisoners in state prisons and more than 15% of those are serving drug-related sentences; the cost of the U. S. prison system is estimated to be as high as $72 billion per year.
Some lawmakers are working to reform that prison system due to overcrowding, the crushing cost, racial disparities and the ineffectiveness of protracted sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses. Several measures have been taken on the federal level, including the U. S. Department of Justice’s April 2014 issuance of new guidelines for granting clemency to inmates serving long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Qualified offenders must meet several criteria: they must have served at least 10 years of their sentences; they must have no other significant criminal record; they must have no significant gang or organized crime ties; and they must have exhibited good behavior during their imprisonment. Some experts assert that the new clemency guidelines will result in thousands of inmates’ releases from prison. Furthermore, the bipartisan “Smarter Sentencing Act,” which would reduce minimum mandatory sentences and give judges more sentencing discretion, is now wending its way through Congress. Some states are also reforming their severe drug-related sentencing. More than 40 years after the U. S. got tough on drugs, realistic assessments of the resulting federal and state systems are leading to less draconian measures for addressing nonviolent drug offenses.
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