Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment
On October 7-8, 2021, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice explored the myriad issues surrounding drug sentencing and its contribution to mass incarceration and mass punishment during this major symposium. In addition to academics, researchers, and advocates discussing sound drug sentencing policies, this event also included judges, current and former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and justice-involved individuals sharing their perspectives on drug sentencing practices.
About the symposium
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced—and how they should be. Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns. Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally. And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts. Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses. And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.
Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment. Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges. But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems. The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.
Recordings for six of the symposium’s events are now available. We hope to add the seventh and final recording, as well as transcripts of each event soon. You can find individual links to recordings on the agenda page or visit DEPC’s event playlist on YouTube.