U.S. Department of Justice: An Analysis of Non-violent Drug Offenders with Minimal Criminal Histories

(Editor's note: The following 'Executive Summary' was prepared by the Office of the U.S. Deputy Attorney General in February 1994 with the assistance
of the Bureau of Prisons and other agencies, for the review and consideration of the Attorney General. Even though this report is more than six years old it serves as evidence of the Attorney General's longtime awareness of special problems associated with the policies of mandatory-minimum sentencing. The percentages and absolute numbers in this report offer some hint of the large number of federal prisoners eligible for release as defined in the Jubilee Justice petition to President Clinton.)

Executive Summary

Recent years have been marked by dramatic increases in the Federal prison population and in the number of Federal defendants sentenced for drug law violations. This report takes as its focus drug offenders with a minimal or no prior criminal history whose offense did not involve sophisticated criminal activity and whose offense behavior was not violent. We refer to this person as a "low-level" drug offender. This shorthand is adopted for purposes of convenience and not to suggest any policy conclusions or assessments about the seriousness or harm resulting from drug offenses. The purpose of the analysis is to gain a more solid foundation of knowledge to inform criminal justice policy decisions.

The study started with a group of offenders selected from computerized records used by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons. A sample was identified on the basis of automated information about prior convictions, violence in the current offense, and level of sophistication of the instant offense. However, once the sample was identified, more in-depth record searches (including paper records with considerably more detail and National Crime Information Center records) disclosed more specific information about criminal histories as well as the functional role individual offenders played in their offenses.

It should be noted that there are at least two fundamental approaches to the sentencing of drug law offenders. One approach emphasizes the harm associated with the amount of drugs involved in the offense. Indeed, mandatory-minimum penalties for drug offenses have this premise. A second approach recognizes that in addition to the harm associated with the quantity of drugs, there are other important sentencing factors including the offender's role, and the risk he or she poses to the community. This report does not endorse or recommend one approach above the other. Rather it provides information on risk and role for the consideration of policymakers.

The major findings of this study are:

  • A substantial number of drug law violators sentenced to incarceration in Bureau of Prisons custody can be classified as "low-level". Using one set of criteria which limited offenders to no current or prior violence in their records, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity and no prior commitment, there were 16,316 Federal prisoners who could be considered low-level drug law violators. They constituted 36.1 percent of all drug law offenders in the prison system and 21.2 percent of the total sentenced Federal prison population.
  • If we further restricted the population to those offenders with zero criminal history points - according to U.S. Sentencing Commission rules, there were 12,727 Federal prisoners who could be considered low-level drug law violators. They constituted 28.2 percent of all drug offenders in the prison system and 16.6 percent of all sentenced prisoners.
  • The average sentence of the low-level drug law offender group was 81.5 months which means that, under Guideline sentencing (must serve 85% of sentence), these individuals will serve, on average, at least 69 months before release from prison.
  • Even with a liberal interpretation of criminal justice contact (where criminal justice contact was defined as an arrest regardless of disposition), the majority of low-level offenders had no prior recorded contact with the criminal justice system. The data do not reflect criminal justice contacts outside the United States. Therefore, criminal justice contacts for non-citizens may be under-reported.
  • Based on the study sample, two-thirds of low-level drug offenders currently in the Bureau of Prisons (1994) received mandatory-minimum sentences. Even among low-level drug offenders, sentences have increased 150% above what they were prior to the implementation of Sentencing Guidelines and significant sentencing legislation which established mandatory-minimum sentences for primarily drug and weapons offenses.
  • Among the low-level offenders, 42.3 percent were couriers or played peripheral roles in drug trafficking.

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