During the past 22 years, the United States has made great strides in many areas. One area where we as a society have failed and continue to fail, however, is related to sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders like those charged with drug crimes. In fact, during the past 22 years, the average prison sentence has increased in length by 36 percent.
While many other developed nations, including Canada, have worked towards sentencing reform, the U.S. has moved towards stricter and more punitive sentencing guidelines. Prior crimes are also typically taken into account by judges who are more liable to impose harsh sentences on individuals with prior convictions.
One man, who had two prior convictions both related to non-violent crimes, was recently sentenced to 60 years in prison for attempting to sell $40 worth of narcotics. In another state, a man with prior nonviolent convictions was sentenced to 45 years in prison for stealing a woman's purse. Regardless of prior convictions, one must ask themselves if in these instances the punishment fits the crime.
Rather than provide additional funding for treatment and rehabilitative programs, most states have opted to impose harsher sentences for less serious crimes. The idea that harsher sentencing guidelines somehow deter or discourage nonviolent offenders, however, does not seem to be working. Rather, there are simply more people flooding our nation's prisons, many of whom do not belong there.
As a nation, it's critical that we examine current sentencing guidelines and call for sentencing reform. Locking an individual up does nothing to aid in rehabilitation or discourage them from committing another crime. Many individuals convicted of drug crimes, are sick and need treatment. Likewise, individuals convicted of other non-violent crimes often benefit from education and work programs.
Source: American Civil Liberties Union, "Extreme Sentencing," Rachel Myers, Aug. 13, 2012