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Calls intensify for mandatory drug sentence reform

California residents may be aware that lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum have been harshly critical of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The nationwide war on drugs was stepped up in the 1980s as crack cocaine ravaged urban neighborhoods across the country, and the federal prison population increased by nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2012. There are approximately 200,000 individuals incarcerated in federal correctional facilities, and almost half of them are behind bars for drug offenses.

The Urban Institute surveyed 2012 data from the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Sentencing Commission and released its findings on Oct. 27. The research organization found that more than a third of federal drug inmates had a minimal criminal history and had never been incarcerated before their imprisonment. The study also revealed that more than half of those incarcerated on drug charges had been convicted for powdered or crack cocaine offenses.

The Urban Institute report also revealed that most of the drug offenders in federal prison are male, more than three quarters of them are people of color and about one in four of them are not U.S. citizens. While the report may make for grim reading, proponents of legal reform may be buoyed by news that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bipartisan bill on Oct. 22 that reduces mandatory minimum sentences, grants judges more sentencing discretion and steps up early release efforts.

Criminal defense attorneys may seek to avoid their clients facing mandatory minimum sentences by having drug charges reduced or dismissed. Drug cases often hinge on accomplice testimony or contraband seized during a search. Defense attorneys may closely review search warrant applications and police reports to ensure that law enforcement officers acted within strict boundaries clearly defined by the U.S. Constitution.

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