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Drug crimes and the federal prison population

Between 1980 and 2012, the number of detainees in federal prisons increased by approximately 800 percent. California residents may not be surprised that nearly half of these individuals are held on drug convictions. However, it might be surprising to note that more than one-third of the drug offenders held had little or no prior criminal history. The "War on Drugs" is credited with much of the effort to penalize those who traffic in drugs, the offense at issue in the majority of cases for current prisoners held on drug convictions.

Because of increasing numbers in federal prisons, however, resources are being stretched. Efforts are in action at judicial levels to provide alternative punishments as offenders are sentenced. Additionally, lawmakers are working to implement reform measures that will help in controlling the prison population at the federal level. One of the primary issues is requirements for mandatory minimum sentences, but reforms may provide greater leeway, especially in the cases of those who have no prior record.

On a statistical level, approximately one of every five drug offenders in federal prison is white. Nearly two of every five drug offenders are Latino, and nearly two of every five are black. Approximately 2 percent of prisoners with drug-related offenses are from other ethnic backgrounds. Females account for only 7.5 percent of this population. The substance most commonly involved in these cases is cocaine, which accounts for more than 54 percent of the sentences.

As efforts are made to reform the minimum sentence mandates, those facing drug trafficking charges may find that there is room to negotiate for reduced sentences in the future. Lawyers might argue for sentencing that involves alternatives to prison time for those who have no prior criminal records.

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