Although virtually every aspect of the war on drugs has vocal public critics, no policy has generated universal concern more than harsh sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. In a highly politicized Washington, excessive sentences are the rare concern that prompts bipartisan action. At the state level, lawmakers have already enacted measures to reduce penalties for drug offenders, emphasizing alternatives to incarceration such as addiction treatment.
Despite this broad agreement, however, some in power remain proponents of mandatory minimum sentencing. In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama-era policy to avoid prosecution of minor narcotic crimes, instructing his Justice Department to pursue the maximum sentence possible for all offenders, nonviolent or otherwise.
Which side of this sentencing divide do the American people favor? We polled 1,000 of them on the sentences they felt were appropriate for various crimes involving a number of substances. Our findings reveal where popular opinion diverges from official policy and which offenses Americans find most troubling. Read on to learn how our respondents’ views on drugs and justice compare to your own.
Imprisoned for the Powder
Activists have long criticized the disparity between mandatory minimums for crack and powder cocaine, alleging heavier sentencing for the former stems from racial prejudice. Our respondents seemed to perceive the dangers of each substance in relatively equal terms, both for possession and trafficking. Just 13 percent thought prison alone was appropriate for those caught with crack cocaine, and 14 percent thought that was the proper punishment for powder possession. Similarly, 44 percent thought powder cocaine trafficking was deserving of prison, while 48 percent thought crack traffickers warranted that fate.
In reality, however, our national figures indicate prison is the rule and not the exception for those arrested with either crack or powder cocaine. For example, 89 percent of those convicted for possession of powder cocaine end up behind bars, serving five months on average. Interestingly, a smaller portion of those (57 percent) with crack possession convictions went to jail – although if they did, their sentences averaged 18 months. Among crack traffickers, however, 96 percent found themselves in prison.
Dealing Uppers and Downers
Among our participants, there was significant support for nuanced responses to methamphetamine possession – nearly a third thought probation and alternatives were sufficient punishment, and a quarter thought prison and alternatives would work well. But national data reveal just two possibilities are truly available: imprisonment alone in 34 percent of cases and probation in the other 66 percent. For traffickers of the drug, 97 percent of sentences were deemed prison-exclusive, at an average length of eight years. Less than half of respondents thought this option was appropriate, and those who did suggested an average sentence length of just 66 months.
Heroin possession also prompted a desire for alternatives to traditional correctional methods, with 25 percent supporting prison and alternatives and another 30 percent supporting probation and alternatives. Unfortunately, these multidisciplinary approaches are virtually unheard of in American courts, with probation alone being the most common outcome of possession convictions. For trafficking, 95 percent of convictions resulted in prison without any supplemental alternatives. As the opioid epidemic fills jails with abusers of heroin and similar substances, some advocates have questioned this incarceration-only approach, suggesting making treatment available in correctional facilities instead.
A New Perspective on Pot
For simple possession of marijuana, just 2 percent of participants felt prison alone was warranted. In reality, 89 percent of those convicted for this crime serve time, with an average sentence of five months. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed felt probation only was the appropriate sentence for possession, but according to our national figures, just 1 percent receive this penalty. The most popular option indicated a more lenient approach to possessing pot, with 60 percent saying none of the measures above should be implemented for such offenders.
Sentiment changed slightly for those convicted of trafficking marijuana, but the dominant view was that harsh penalties were unnecessary for this drug. Just 6 percent advocated prison alone, whereas 90 percent of convicted marijuana traffickers actually meet this fate. Twenty-eight percent of people thought probation alone was sufficient, but 5 percent of offenders ultimately receive this punishment. These attitudes toward possession and trafficking may relate to public opinion of marijuana legalization, a policy that more than 6 in 10 Americans support.
When asked if current sentencing practices entailed a racial bias, the overwhelming majority responded in the affirmative. This pattern held true for every ethnic group, although African-Americans were most adamant, with 90 percent indicating sentencing exhibited racial prejudice. Similarly, 89 percent of Democrats felt a racial bias was at play, as did most Independents and Libertarians. Republicans represented the lone exception to this opinion, with 47 percent feeling sentencing policy was racially biased in any way.
Even greater agreement was evident on class-based inequalities in sentencing. At least 79 percent of each ethnic group concurred that socio-economic distinctions played an unfair role in the punishment of drug crimes. Republicans again had the smallest portion in agreement with this sentiment, but even 67 percent of this cohort felt class differences influenced the path of justice. Among all other political affiliations, at least 80 percent agreed with this notion.
Reparations for Incarceration
While many states have adjusted their drug sentencing policies already, what should be done for those with past convictions? Within each political affiliation, the largest portion of respondents felt pardons should be granted to those who committed acts that have since been decriminalized. Additionally, the second most popular option among all groups was reduced sentencing. This feeling corresponds to a new reality in states such as California, where the legalization of recreational marijuana has made it possible for those serving time to petition to change their sentences.
While support for government reparations to past offenders was modest among all political affiliations, that proposal has vocal proponents, who see mass incarceration as analogous to “Jim Crow” era discrimination. Others have suggested reparations should come from another source: The legal marijuana industry, a booming field in which few minorities take part. Conversely, Republicans were most likely to say no compensatory measures at all were required.
Progress vs. the Penitentiary
Our findings reveal a desire for criminal justice reform that transcends identity and party, with public sentiment differing greatly from the policies enforced nationally. But before that enthusiasm for a new path can translate into real change, alternatives to prison must first be explored and implemented. As our nation confronts an opioid epidemic of unprecedented scale, this public health crisis warrants investment in effective treatment – and access to it for all affected Americans.
If you or someone you know is in need of high-quality addiction treatment, you may have more resources at your disposal than you realize. At Addiction Now, we strive to provide the most recent and accurate information to individuals and families struggling with substance misuse. Let us help you navigate the options available, so you can pursue the well-being you deserve.
We surveyed 1,000 Americans to see how they viewed federal drug sentencing compared to U.S. Sentencing Commission data. We weighted the survey data to the 2016 U.S. census for gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Any inconsistencies in the U.S. sentencing data were removed from national statistics calculations. This includes sentencing lengths that did not match the imposed sentence type.
The survey sentence lengths are an approximate average length rather than a true average length. Respondents were able to choose sentence lengths ranging from zero to 11 months, one to nine years, 10 or more years, 15 or more years, 20 or more years, and life. Thus, the sentence length metric was calculated using averages for these responses. Future studies can explore this topic using write-in sentence lengths for increased accuracy.
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