Federal Judges Consider Alternative Sentencing in Drug Cases

Some thought it would never happen. Others thought it was inevitable. Regardless, the time is upon us. Federal judges are turning to drug courts and even deferred prosecutions in drug cases, a policy that has met with good success rates in state court, with the agreement of DOJ.

Leading the charge is U.S. District court judge Jack Gleeson in Brooklyn.

Federal judges have instituted programs in California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington. About 400 defendants have been involved nationwide.

Judge Gleeson issued this 35 page order about the benefits of the program in comparison to our draconian sentencing laws. [More...]

The stats, according to Judge Gleeson:

The case mix in federal courts is certainly different than that in state courts. But anyone who believes that the federal system deals only with “the most serious drug and violent” offenders isn’t familiar with the federal criminal docket. The make-up of the federal prison population bears this out. In 2011 only 7.6% of federal prisoners were incarcerated for violent crimes.56 The bulk of the federal prison population is made up of drug offenders; in 2011, about half of all federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses.57 And they are mainly non-violent, low-level offenders. In 2011 roughly 84% of drug defendants had no weapon involved.

Drug use is rampant in prisons.

The incidence of substance abuse is high among the federal prison population. According to a 2004 DOJ report, roughly 63% of all federal prisoners identified as regular drug users and 45% met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse.61 About 19% of all federal prisoners committed their offense to support their drug habit.62 Among drug offenders, about 52% met the criteria for drug abuse or dependence, 57% reported drug use in the month before the offense, and 32% reported drug use at the time of the offense.63 About 25% of drug offenders committed their offense to support their drug habit.

The Federal Judiciary supports the judges efforts. Judge Gleeson says:

Presentence programs like ours and those in other districts mean that a growing number of courts are no longer reflexively sentencing federal defendants who do not belong in prison to the costly prison terms recommended by the sentencing guidelines,”

And how's this for change? This is kind of change we hoped to see in Obama's first term:

The Justice Department has supported additional changes to the federal sentencing guidelines to permit the use of drug or mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration for certain low-level offenders and changed its own policies to make those options more available.

“We recognize that imprisonment alone is not a complete strategy for reducing crime,” James M. Cole, the deputy attorney general, said in a statement. “Drug courts, re-entry courts and other related programs along with enforcement are all part of the solution.”

What the plan means for the offender:

Under the model being used in state and federal courts, defendants must accept responsibility for their crimes and agree to receive drug treatment and other social services and attend regular meetings with judges who monitor their progress. In return for successful participation, they receive a reduced sentence or no jail time at all. If they fail, they are sent to prison.

Some offenders are excluded from the programs: "high-level dealers or traffickers, or accused of a violent crime."

Is Judge Jack Gleeson the new spokesman for the change? In his 35 page order:

[He] criticized the Justice Department for charging defendants with drug offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, urged the Sentencing Commission to reduce the guideline range for many drug offenses and called for more programs that divert defendants from prison time.

Drug courts and increased good time to all offenders would be a benefit to everyone, not just the inmates. Perhaps, the times are changing after all.

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