US signals softer stance on drug sentencing for non-violent offenders

The US administration has indicated a softening of its stance on drug sentencing, with proposals to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.                                        

The country has long been the subject of criticism for its drug policies, with around a quarter of the 2m people in its jails estimated to have been convicted of a drug offence.

US attorney general Eric Holder announced plans to abolish the use of mandatory sentencing in certain drugs cases in a speech to the American Bar Association. The Obama administration previously indicated an intention to divert non-violent drug offenders away from the prison system in its 2012 national drug control strategy (DDN, May 2012, page 5), while earlier this year an open letter to the US government signed by more than 175 civil rights leaders, celebrities and business figures called for more alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offences (DDN, April, page 5). Holder said in a radio interview before the announcement that ‘unintended consequences’ of the war on drugs had included ‘a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of colour.’

Executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann, called the announcement ‘incredibly significant – the first time a US attorney general has spoken so forcefully or offered such a detailed proposal for sentencing reform, and particularly notable that he framed the issue in moral terms.’

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