Sometimes the federal government just can’t help itself. At a time when the majority of Americans still feel that their country is headed in the wrong direction, and have expressed their weariness of the “war on Drugs,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) has asked for a $236 million budget increase. The non-partisan Pew Research Institute, in a new poll, has found that two-thirds of Americans “say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs.”
To a large measure this result reflects the evolving skepticism of Americans as to just what they have gotten from billions of dollars spent to prosecute and incarcerate non-violent drug offenders, as well as a growing acceptance of limited and controlled usage of marijuana for medical treatment. The poll also notes that “fully 75% of the public –including majorities of those who favor and oppose the legal use of marijuana – think that the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.”
It is no coincidence that Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission have either passed or are considering broad changes in sentencing policy, following the lead of 40 states that have lessened the criminal penalties for non-violent drug offense, reduced their prison populations, and seen a corresponding drop in their overall crime rates. The Smarter Sentencing Act, finally put on the U.S. Senate’s calendar in March, has received a large measure of bi-partisan support. According to the Pew Study, the measure will apply to almost 70 percent of defendants convicted of federal drug offenses, would reduce sentences by almost a year, and reduce the federal prisoner count by about 6500 over five years.
The public has also changed its attitude about other drugs also, according to the report, with “most Americans prefer(ing) a less punitive approach to the use of drugs such as heroin and cocaine, an even larger majority (76% of the public) – including 69% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats (and) think(ing) that people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should not have to serve time in jail.”
However, it is still not clear that DOJ and the BOP have gotten the message yet. In 2014, the Obama Administration asked for $8.5 billion for the BOP budge, and increase of $236 million from fiscal year 2102, with the BOP anticipating housing even more prisoners in the coming year. This in spite of Attorney General Holder’s strong endorsement of prosecution and sentencing reform to reduce the number of people in prison.
See also: “Americans, weary of war on drugs, prefer rehab to jail, poll shows,” by Elizabeth Barber, www.csmonitor.com, April 3, 2014.
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