U.S. prisoner data clearly shows two things. One, the majority of low-level drug offenders are serving their sentences in state, not federal prisons. Two, most of those incarcerated in federal prison for drug charges are non-citizens. While it may be worthwhile to pursue reform at the federal level, it will do very little to address the problems identified by proponents of sentencing reform, and it would do almost nothing to reduce sentences for U.S. citizen drug offenders.
Table 1 shows the percentage breakdown in several categories of the estimated 1.35 million prisoners serving terms in state criminal institutions throughout the United States. Note that 3.6 percent of all prisoners, or 48,600, under state jurisdiction are serving time for drug possession. The remaining drug offenders were convicted for trafficking and other related offenses, such as facilitating the illicit drug trade. The distribution of drug prisoners in state prisons is fairly evenly divided among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. A higher proportion of females (24%) than males (15%) are incarcerated for drugs in state prisons.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2015
* “Includes trafficking and other drug offenses,” (p. 16).
As of April 7, 2016, there were 196,285 prisoners in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with 46.5 percent of these prisoners, (91,270) sentenced for drug offenses. The percentage of prisoners incarcerated for drugs is just over two and half times greater than the state prison population. However, overall, there are fewer prisoners serving time in federal prison for drug charges than in state prisons (212,000).
Source: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, last updated 3/27/2016
*Federal offenses have been consolidated to correspond with the state classifications in Table 1.
The Federal government collects data differently for state and federal prisoners. In order to get the breakdown of offenses for federal drug prisoners, data from the U.S Sentencing Commission is available. Looking at sentencing statistics from FY2007 to FY2015, a clear distinction between federal and state prison populations is that the proportion of federal prisoners serving time for drug possession is much higher than for state prisoners, and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among federal drug inmates.
There is a higher ratio of Hispanics serving drug sentences for both trafficking and possession convictions in federal prisons. As Daniel Horowitz pointed out, this is because many of the drug offenders in federal prison are serving sentences for drug convictions related to the illicit drug trade on the U.S.-Mexico border.
In response to a congressional request regarding sentencing data for federal drug offenses, the U.S. Sentencing Commission sent data showing that 95% of the 305 individuals serving time in federal prison for simple drug offenses are non-citizens and 95.7 % were sentenced in southwest border districts – virtually all of them in Arizona. Furthermore, 95.7 % of the simple possession drug crimes for which offenders are incarcerated involved marijuana and the median weight of the drug involved in cases from border districts was 22,000 grams (approximately 48 pounds). Only 13 simple possession cases were tried in non-border districts in FY 2014.
Source: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, last updated Saturday, February 27, 2016
In a letter sent to Sen. Jeff Sessions last fall, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 77% of individuals convicted of federal drug possession charges and more than 25% of individuals convicted of federal drug trafficking charges in FY2015 were non-citizen.
The profile for federal drug prisoners is different than at the state level, and this is why Congress needs to recognize and address these differences when crafting legislation that will effect this population. Federal drug and immigration enforcement are for now inextricably tied together, and Mexican drug cartels are a serious threat to public safety. A serious debate over how to best address the War on Drugs and its effects on American communities can not ignore the immigration component.
Sentencing reform bills reducing penalties for some federal prisoners (S. 2123 and H.R. 3713) are being portrayed by their supporters as a long overdue corrective to harsh sentencing laws for individuals who violate federal drug laws, which they argue create racial disparities in the nation’s prison population.
Reforming drug sentencing laws is one thing. Releasing criminal aliens back into U.S. interior,
is quite another. The Obama Administration has already shown its willingness to do the latter, including those who were deemed to be criminal threats to the public. Without a bill with strong, clear language and, most importantly, a Congress willing to extend oversight over the executive branch, it is plain that the sentencing reform legislation likely to soon come before Congress will accomplish little more than to provide an early release for dangerous criminal aliens, while still failing to hold President Obama to account for his failure to enforce U.S. immigration law.
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Jun 13th 2016 @ 4:17pm EDT