Prison-Industrial Complex Watch: Amnesty For Non-Violent Drug Offenders?

Last month Attorney General Eric Holder declared “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” For many, this was a welcome, although limited change of policy. To get around existing mandatory minimum laws, Holder instructed federal prosecutors to use discretion for non-violent drug offenders. By not listing the quantities of drugs, prosecutors can’t avoid the trigger mechanisms in mandatory minimum sentencing rules. This is definitely a good first step, but we need all mandatory minimum laws repealed. We should not remove the ability of a judge and jury to rule on the merits of each case.

Another idea to reduce America’s burgeoning prison population is to grant amnesty to non-violent drug offenders currently behind bars. After all, the laws that put many of these people behind bars for extended periods of time are now in question. It hardly seems just to ignore current prisoners in light of the new prosecution approach.

An Amnesty for Prisoners of the War on Drugs | Ernest Drucker — Declare a blanket amnesty or pardon for all drug war prisoners currently serving time in prison or on parole for non-violent drug offenses.

The procedures by which a large scale amnesty or pardon could be achieved will be complex, and would differ from state to state. At the federal level, where the largest proportion of prisoners are drug offenders, President Obama could issue pardons or use his executive release powers for minor drug law offenders — actions that would serve justice and save money — while of course ensuring that those with violent histories who may pose a risk to the community, are adjudicated separately.

Do we actually think we are keeping ourselves safer and building a better society by locking up hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders? In America, we put way too much emphasis on the punitive side instead of the reform side. Unless we are going to lock people up for life, they will re-enter society one day. So in addition to amnesty, we need to lift many of the restrictions that make people second-class citizens once they leave prison.

We also must systematically remove the many legal restrictions that make it so difficult for former drug felons to establish a home, get an education or a decent job, and to become productive citizens again. For example, we could offer to expunge their drug offense records when they succeed at these positive steps, thus meeting the true intent of the U.S. “second chance” act.

If we truly want to reform people, give them a second chance, then why are we still punishing them after they have served their sentence?

It’s time for America to wake up from decades of failed drug policy.

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Prison-Industrial Complex

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