The Dope on Drug Sentencing: New Approaches Simplify Sentencing, Get More Drug Abusers Treatment and Save States Money

By Lawrence, Alison | State Legislatures, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Dope on Drug Sentencing: New Approaches Simplify Sentencing, Get More Drug Abusers Treatment and Save States Money


Lawrence, Alison, State Legislatures


Drug abuse and the criminal justice system are inextricably entwined.

As much as 80 percent of what states spend for prisons, parole and probation is for offenders involved with drugs. Most of that money is spent on building and operating prisons, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

While only 20 percent of inmates in state prisons are serving time for drug crimes, 53 percent of them are considered substance abusers.

In recent years, a number of states have examined their drug sentencing laws to identify people who can benefit from community-based alternative programs so prison space can be reserved for the most serious criminals. Lawmakers have studied inequalities in sentencing, revised the hierarchy of serious drug offenses and placed a greater focus on treatment.

The efforts are aimed at creating a better system for drug offenders and saving states money that can be used for other programs.

Updating the Code

Delaware's drug code, like those of other states, was a complex web of laws that had been revised over the last 30 years. Mandatory minimum sentences had been increased, others decreased or eliminated, and drug weight thresholds modified.

In 2011, Delaware lawmakers authorized a complete revision of their drug sentencing laws, a move supported by a task force of legislators, police officials, defense and prosecuting attorneys, judges and a local advocacy group.

Delaware Senator Liane Sorenson believed that to avoid incremental success and "to avoid a battle each year in the General Assembly, the stakeholders should work together rather than against each other."

The overhaul aimed to address the "inherent inequalities [of drug sentencing laws] and the impact on communities and the prison system," says Delaware Representative Melanie George, primary sponsor of the legislation, and to "narrowly identify, as a matter of public policy, who we want to be in jail and who needs treatment and deserves to be a contributing member of society."

A major provision of the 2011 act was restructuring drug offenses into three main categories--simple possession, possession of large amounts, and drug dealing--reflecting the seriousness of the drug crimes. Aggravating factors--such as resisting arrest by force or committing the crime in a school zone--were established that, if present, increase the penalties.

"We increased penalties for offenders dealing in large amounts of drugs or who are violent," George says, "on the theory that they are the ones who cause the most harm to the community."

The new structure also reduces penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs. "We wanted to give the people who were hurting themselves and not others the opportunity be a productive member of the community, instead of being a $33,000 a year burden on society," George says.

Sentencing ranges were set for each crime class that relaxed mandatory sentences and gave "some flexibility back to judges by allowing them to weigh the spectrum of issues related to a crime and not just the weight of drugs," says Representative Greg Lavelle.

Previously, penalties were based solely on the weight or amount of drugs the person possessed at the time they were arrested.

Since many offenders received stiffer penalties because they were in a school zone when they were arrested, drug-free school zones were decreased from 1,000 feet to 300 feet and possession in this area became an aggravating factor rather than a standalone offense. It was found that the previous drug-free school zone law had a disproportionate effect on minorities in cities where it was difficult not to be within a school zone.

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"With few areas in the city outside such a 'school zone bubble,' the law logically posed very little incentive for drug offenders to move away from schools," Sorenson says. …

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