Public Opinion Shifts on Drug Sentencing

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A report released on Wednesday concluded that public opinion on drug offenses has started to shift, as a preference for treatment over jail time is growing, particularly for hard drug users.

The study conducted by the Pew Research Center details the results of public opinion surveys taken earlier this year, and concluded that 67 percent of Americans favor providing treatment to drug users for substances like cocaine and heroin. In contrast, only 26 percent of those surveyed favored the prosecution of drug users.

This survey reflects a notable change in public and policymakers’ opinions during the “war on drugs,” which President Nixon declared in 1971 in response to drug use in the 1960s. Decades later, U.S. incarceration rates have skyrocketed as a result of drug offenders, which make up a very large portion of the American prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 52.1 percent of federal prisoners and 17.4 percent of state prisoners were convicted of drug related offenses. As federal and state governments face increasing financial pressures to save money, a trend to decrease prison sentences has started to emerge in the government as well.

Changing Opinions

The Pew Research Center’s report found that a change is occurring in the popular perception of mandatory sentencing policies for non-violent drug crimes. According to the survey, 63 percent of respondents believe that moving away from mandatory sentencing policies is a good thing, while only 47 percent held that view in 2001.

The research indicates that opposition of mandatory minimums and long prison sentences is not strictly based on financial reasons, rather public perceptions of imprisonment for drug offenses may be changing. Although the study found that most Americans see drug abuse as either a crisis or serious problem in the United States, the findings may not extend to marijuana as 69 percent of the public views it as less harmful than alcohol. Support for the legalization of marijuana has also experienced a recent boost, as now over half of Americans (54 percent) are in favor of such policies. Even more, people support the decriminalization of marijuana; 76 percent of the people surveyed, oppose jail time for possessing small amounts.

A news article that was published by Pew Research Center along with their report also noted how popular opinion of drug sentencing has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. A 1990 a survey found that 73 percent of Americans supported a mandatory death penalty for “major drug traffickers,” and nearly 60 percent thought police should be able to search known drug dealer’s houses without a warrant. The new research indicates that such attitudes may now be very different, marked by the public’s preference for treatment over prison sentences for hard drug users.

Pending Legislation

These findings come at an important time politically, as the Smart Sentencing Act (SSA) of 2014 was recently placed on the Senate’s legislative calendar. The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), calls for significant changes in the sentencing of drug related offenders. With bi-partisan support, the legislation would instruct the courts to create prison sentences without considering mandatory minimums if the defendant has no more than one prior offense. It would also amend the Controlled Substances Act and Controlled Substances Import and Export Act to reduce the minimum sentence times for several offenses.

The Smart Sentencing Act would make the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), passed in 2010, retroactive. This means that anyone sentenced for a crime prior to the passage of the FSA may appeal their sentence and have it modified to reflect changes made by the legislation. The primary intentions of the bill is to both increase fairness in sentencing while also taking the fiscal concerns surrounding imprisonment into account during the sentencing process. Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the bill earlier this year, and urged Congress to prevent “excessive mandatory minimum sentences that are out of proportion with their alleged conduct – and serve no deterrent purpose.”

Holder has also recently testified in front of the the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that sets federal sentencing policies, in an effort to support a plan to reduce federal sentencing policies for drug trafficking offenders. These changes would affect as much as 70 percent of the drug trafficking offenders, and would reduce the average sentence by 11 months. The commission is expected to vote on the proposal sometime this month.

The changing trends and public opinion and recently proposed legislation indicate the possibility of a rare sense of agreement between the public and U.S. policymakers. Although the Smart Sentencing Act still faces several hurdles in congress, if passed it would mark an important deviation from the “war on drugs” that has been going on for decades.

Pew Research Center: Survey

Kevin Rizzo (@kevinrizzo10)

Featured Image Courtesy of [Wikimedia]

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at



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