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New Federal Drug Sentencing Policies Mimic Current Arkansas Laws

Arkansas sentencing laws for drug offenses, in effect since 1993, are now serving as a model for federal prison reform, which could save taxpayers billions of dollars and shift the focus from punishment to rehabilitation.

The current system

There’s widespread agreement that the current federal drug crime sentencing laws — particularly their mandatory minimum sentences — are flawed. They have led to prisons overcrowded with drug offenders — many of whom are nonviolent or first-time convicts  — at a cost to taxpayers of $80 billion a year. The laws also base sentencing on the amount of drugs an offender is caught with, rather than more relevant factors such as his or her connection to more serious criminal activity.

The laws in Arkansas and federal reform

Instead of imposing mandatory minimum sentences on first-time drug criminals, Arkansas law allows nonviolent first-time offenders to serve probation. In September 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced modifications to the current federal sentencing practices that mimic the laws in Arkansas. Some of the key objectives include: 

  • Adjust guidelines to reduce the number of nonviolent criminals in prison, thus cutting taxpayer costs
  • Reserve prison sentences for repeat offenders, violent offenders and offenders with ties to trafficking operations, cartels, kingpins or gang activity
  • Release elderly drug offenders who have served long sentences
  • Emphasize public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation when it comes to drug crimes 

The response to the reforms has generally been favorable. The biggest hurdle, analysts say, will be changing the mindset of federal prosecutors who have long been encouraged to aggressively pursue stiff sentences for all drug offenders.

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