Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Righting the wrongs of U.S. war on drugs

  • Print

Liberals and conservatives in the United States have learned from the drug war’s failures. More jail time may result in less crime, but the costs can be too high. Harsh punishments often catch street-corner dealers, not drug kingpins. The drug war’s foremost legacy is a skyrocketing prison population; the number of drug offenders in federal prisons has increased 21 times since 1980.

Spurred by this alarming reality, the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted last week to give nearly 50,000 inmates the chance to reduce their drug sentences. This came after an April decision to lower sentencing guidelines, the advisory rules given to judges, by an average of one to two years for drug-related crimes.

The commission’s decision begins to swing the pendulum back from the days of excessive punishment. So does Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s push for prosecutors to avoid activating mandatory minimum sentences when charging low-level drug crimes and for an expansion of clemency.

Yet the commission’s guidelines aren’t binding, and Mr. Holder’s department policies could be overturned by his successor. The core of the problem — overly tough mandatory minimum sentences and the difficulty in reintegrating ex-prisoners into society — can be addressed only by Congress.

Luckily, two bills are pending that precisely address these issues.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reform how prisoners are sentenced. Currently, a defendant convicted with just 10 grams of certain drugs and one prior felony drug offence must receive at least 20 years in prison. The bill helps correct what Mr. Holder called "draconian" minimum sentences, halving them for many drug crimes and expanding exemptions for nonviolent offenders with little criminal history. These mandatory minimums, implemented in the 1980s, did not help enhance public safety as the amount of drugs caught by law enforcement steadily increased. States such as Michigan and Delaware have wisely amended their laws.

The second bill, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, reforms the way prisoners reintegrate into society. It expands prison jobs, academic classes and drug treatment programs that allow inmates to prepare for life after jail. Recidivism rates are high because ex-prisoners are often treated as second-class citizens, unable to find jobs to sustain themselves. This bill also ties early-release credits to the successful completion of recidivism-reduction programs.

Sponsors of these two proposals are negotiating on whether to bundle them together. Whether that is successful or not, both bills should pass. They will help lower the crime rate in the long run, bring proportionality back into punishments and save millions of dollars a year.

"Conservatives should lead on this," Grover Norquist, who supports criminal justice reform, told The Washington Post. "Liberals don’t have a track record on crime. We do."

Perhaps the Republicans stalling on these bills should listen to Mr. Norquist. Some lawmakers think the earliest chance of passage would be in 2015, but there’s no reason it can’t be done this year.

— The Washington Post


Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Winnipeg police comment on two officers that resuscitated baby

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Winnipeg’s best friend the dragon fly takes a break at English Gardens in Assiniboine Park Wednesday- A dragon fly can eat  food equal to its own weight in 30 minutes-Standup photo- June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Geese fly in the morning light over Selkirk Ave Wednesday morning- Day 22– June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


What do you think the punishment should be for Dustin Byfuglien's cross-check on New York Rangers forward J. T. Miller?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google