In Growing Trend, Cash-Strapped States Reconsider Harsh Sentencing for Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Press Release January 8, 2003
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Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 or Shayna Samuels at 646-523-6961

In an effort to cut budget costs while protecting vital services, Kentucky, Michigan and a number of other states are finding ways to reduce the large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders filling their prisons — and draining their coffers. The measures, which include repealing mandatory minimum drug sentences and recommending treatment instead of incarceration for first time nonviolent drug offenders, allow funds to be dedicated to drug treatment and other public services proven to be far more cost effective and humane than mass incarceration.

“People across the political spectrum should welcome these decisions,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. “They curb wasteful spending, help nonviolent offenders to become productive, taxpaying citizens again, and preserve scarce funds to educate our children and protect our safety. How can you beat that?”

With states facing ballooning budget deficits across the country, legislatures looking for ways to cut costs are finding corrections policy a logical starting point: of the $5 billion spent annually to keep people convicted of drug crimes in prison, up to 75 percent goes to the costs of housing nonviolent offenders, according to the Sentencing Project. Advocates of reform also expect increased treatment spending to reduce recidivism rates for drug offenders, saving additional funds and improving public health.

Within the past month, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and others have all run stories on the trend. Some initiatives being made at the state level include:

Such developments at the state level echo public opinion across the country. Last year a poll by Peter Hart & Associates revealed that over 60 percent of Americans oppose incarceration for nonviolent offenders and that effective drug treatment is preferable to prison for drug offenders – an option that is on average seven times less expensive.

“Locking up nonviolent drug offenders is the budgetary equivalent of banging your head against the wall — it hurts a lot and achieves nothing,” said Nadelmann. “Fortunately, smart state lawmakers are showing us it’s possible – and feels right – to stop.”

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A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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