of Justice: An Analysis of Non-violent Drug Offenders with Minimal
(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.)
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.