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Drug offenders now majority of those sentenced to federal prisons

As many Washington residents know, the United States has the highest per capita rate of people in prison in the world. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1.6 million state and federal prisoners in 2011. The U.S. Department of Justice, however, recently reported that the number of people locked up in federal and state prison has declined after decades of steady increases. Unfortunately, the decrease came primarily from the release of inmates from several state prisons due to overcrowding.

The number of federal inmates remains high, which necessarily results in massive budget expenditures. Most individuals now in federal prison have been sent there for drug offenses. In fact, since 1998, those arrested for federal drug crimes have made up the largest group entering federal prisons. These offenders are arrested and sentenced for a wide variety of drug offenses. In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation noted that the number of people arrested for marijuana possession topped arrests for all violent crimes that year.

The growth of the federal prison population is attributable to three developments since 1980: expansion of the federal criminal code to treat more state crimes as federal offenses, the elimination of parole for federal prisoners and the expansion of the number of federal charges that are subject to mandatory minimum sentences. More stringent penalties also affect people who are charged with crimes that do not have mandatory sentences, because the penalties for these offenses have increased proportionally, perhaps unfairly saddling these defendants with harsher sentences.

The policies that set stricter penalties can affect any Washington resident who has been accused of a drug crime. The chances are that many crimes that used to be considered only state crimes are now federal offenses. This makes it even more important for a defendant to challenge any drug charge against him or her.

Source: International Business Times, "Drug Offenses, Not Violent Crime, Filling Up Federal Prisons," Ashley Portero, Sept. 4, 2014

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