In the United States, it is a crime to use, possess, manufacture, or distribute drugs classified as illegal.1 As estimated 9.4 percent of the U.S. population above age 12 (or 24.6 million people) are illegal drug users.2 The most commonly used illicit drug is marijuana (reports of nearly daily usage climbed from 5.1 million people in 2005 to 8.1 million by 2013).3 Although national surveys show that rates of illicit drug use and drug dealing are roughly even across races, the rates of arrest for drug possession and dealing are significantly higher among black people.4
Drug-defined offenses occur when someone violates a law that prohibits the possession, use, distribution, or manufacture of illegal drugs.5 Alternatively, drug-related offenses are other crimes that result from the effects of drugs, such as theft motivated by the desire to buy drugs or violence against rival drug dealers.6 Drug users in the general population are more likely than non-users to commit crimes.7 In 2004, 17% of state prisoners and 18% of federal prisoners said they committed their current offense to obtain money for drugs.8 State laws vary widely on what constitutes criminal behavior when it comes to drug use and sales. For example, marijuana cultivation is legal in some states due to medical and personal use exceptions and there has been a recent trend towards marijuana decriminalization.
People convicted of drug offenses make up fifty percent of the federal prison population compared to only 16 percent of the state prison population.9 Federal prosecution for drug crime focuses on drug trafficking rather than mere possession. The average prison sentence for people convicted of federal drug offenses is more than 11 years, contributing to the greatest source of growth for the federal prison population.10 Penalties for drug crime are primarily based on the type and amount of drug, however, there are a great variety of roles people play in drug trafficking, from a courier (someone who simply transports drugs) to a drug kingpin.
Prison Fellowship believes that federal and state drug penalties are often disproportional to the crime. Particularly in the case of drug possession or where low-level dealing is motivated by an individual’s addiction, greater focus on alternatives to incarceration can yield more restorative outcomes. We believe faith-based programs can play a critical role in addressing addiction and advocate for prioritizing access to these programs and other drug-free treatment methods.
In more serious cases of dealing or trafficking, Prison Fellowship works to restore more proportional punishment through sentencing reforms that increase judicial flexibility and reflect greater focus on the role and culpability of the defendant. Prison Fellowship is a leading voice working to advance the U.S. Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123) and the House’s Sentencing Reform Act (H.R.3713), which would both result in drug sentencing reforms to this end.
Prison Fellowship also supports critically evaluating how drug penalties may play a role in contributing to racial disparities. For example, the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine was once 100 to 1.11 Crack and powder cocaine are forms of the same drug, however, 85 percent of individuals arrested for crack cocaine are black, resulting in vast racial disparities for comparable offenses.12 In 2010, at the urging of Prison Fellowship and many others, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which brought down the disparity. However, it remains at 17:1 today. The pending Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123) and Sentencing Reform Act (H.R.3713) would both provide opportunities for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Ac to apply for retroactive relief.