Nonviolent Drug Offenders and Prison

Last week, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders, all who had already served more than 15 years in prison. These prisoners were convicted before the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act was passed which reduced nonviolent drug-related penalties. President Obama's actions resulted from his outspoken belief that many nonviolent offenders do not belong in federal prison.

The State of Prisons Today

The U.S. federal prison population has increased 800 percent over the last three decades leading the facilities to be about 40 percent above capacity. Nearly half of the current inmates are serving drug sentences. There are about 24,000 federal drug offenders serving time in prison. Two-thirds of those offenders were given a mandatory minimum sentence. The cost linked to such imprisonment is staggering. In California, the cost to incarcerate one offender for one year is about $49,000.

President Obama has also expressed his support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would allow some drug offenders convicted before 2009 to seek out shorter prison sentences.

Changing Opinions

Current drug associated laws assign nonviolent drug offenders long prison terms with no constructive or rehabilitation treatment while in prison. After serving time, they are released from prison with no job or education opportunity. Without support or treatment, often they return to their previous drug involvement.

Organizations such as the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) advocate "smarter sentencing laws," and this sentiment is becoming more widespread. This week, actor Matthew Perry, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic himself, gave a speech in London hosted by the think-tank, Policy Exchange, advocating rehabilitation and not prison time for nonviolent drug offenders. Earlier this year, Perry converted his own home into Perry House, a men's only drug and alcohol treatment center.

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