How Many Inmates Are Low-Level Drug Offenders?


The pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines will prompt a sharp new debate over the dangerousness of prison inmates. Judging from an exchange this month in the Washington Post, sorting out the facts won’t be easy. Yeshiva law Prof. Barry Scheck, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, wrote that most of the 180,000 federal prison inmates are “low-level, small-time and nonviolent offenders.” Last Saturday, Justice Department legal policy chief Dan Bryant replied to the Post that 79 percent of “federal nonviolent inmates” have prior records, averaging more than six arrests and two convictions. “The notion that our prisons are filled with nonviolent, first-time offenders is simply not true,” Bryant said.

The numbers and policy debate is sure to continue next year. In response to Justice Department arguments, the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project complains that Justice combines records on inmates with violent offenses and prior records to imply that anyone with a record is violent, even if it’s a “teenager convicted of two low-level drug sales.” The Sentencing Project notes that the proportion of low-level powder cocaine offenders, as defined by the U.S. Sententing Commission, rose from 38 percent of the total to nearly 60 percent between 1995 and 2000. Justice says it welcomes a “healthy debate about sentencing” but Congress and the public should get “facts, not misleading rhetoric.” Crime & Justice News will cover the debate as it evolves next year.


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