Skip to main content

The Justice Department Is Freeing Thousands of Non-Violent Drug Offenders

It's about time.
Living facilities in California State Prison. (Photo: California Department of Corrections/Wikimedia Commons)

Living facilities in California State Prison. (Photo: California Department of Corrections/Wikimedia Commons)

When Ronald Rogers was 14, his family moved from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Los Angeles, California. For Rogers, a talented football player, that meant leaving behind a football scholarship to a private high school in Connecticut. It also meant abandoning his dreams of the National Football League; unhappy with his new team in L.A., Rogers promptly gave up football. Instead, he ended up serving nearly three decades in federal prison for a non-violent drug offense.

Today, at 55, his advancing age betrayed only by his salt-and-pepper hair, Rogers reflects openly on how exactly his life veered off course. He thinks specifically to his interest as a (now ex-football obsessed) high schooler in lowrider cars. "Those cars opened the door to the whole underworld," Rogers says regretfully; a world, populated by gang members and drug dealers, that flourished in the 1980s. "I became involved in drugs because it was all through our neighborhood in L.A. All my friends, everybody, in some type of way was involved in that, because that was the only means of making a living just about," Rogers says. "At least, that's what we thought."

Rogers was just one of thousands of inmates sentenced to decades behind bars for non-violent, drug-related crimes. But last summer, the United States Sentencing Commission—an independent agency that establishes the punishment guidelines for federal crimes—voted to reduce the sentence for non-violent drug offenders. The lighter sentences, the commission decided, would apply to both future and past offenders, leaving nearly half of the 100,000 drug offenders in the nation's prisons eligible to apply for an early release. Roughly 70 sentence reductions have been granted every week since the change went into effect last November, the Justice Department told the Washington Post. Rogers was among them; he has been living in a San Diego halfway house since May, when his application was granted, shaving more than a decade off of his original sentence of 40 years. And the Justice Department is seeing to it that inmates like Rogers who were unfairly sentenced by outdated guidelines have the chance to see their sentence commuted.

"When I got on the federal airlift with the U.S. Marshals, the whole plane was full of black people. It looked like a slave ship."

Thanks to the same guidelines change, some 6,000 inmates are expected to be released from federal prisons between October 30 and November 2. The mass release is intended to help ease overcrowding in prisons, and reduce the lengthy sentences that non-violent drug offenders received as part of the severe mandatory sentencing policies of old. Many of these soon-to-be-former inmates are, like Rogers, bound for halfway houses.

The mass release is good news for more than just the released inmates: Research has found that overcrowded prisons create a litany of problems, from overtaxed infrastructure with projected repair costs in the millions, to psychological and physical consequences for inmates and corrections officers. Reducing the inmate population will therefore benefit not just the released, but also those inmates who will remain behind bars, as well as the corrections officers charged with guarding them.

So how did we get here in the first place?


In 1986, just three years before Rogers would be convicted on charges of conspiring to traffic PCP, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, re-instating mandatory minimums for drug offenses that had been scrapped almost two decades earlier (and momentarily satisfying officials' desire to appear "tough on drugs"). An amendment specific to conspiracy charges, levied against anyone who works together with one or more people to commit a criminal act, passed in 1988, ensuring that anyone involved in a drug trafficking conspiracy, from low-level offenders to kingpins, could be held legally responsible. In effect, this only piled on more time behind bars for low-level offenders. As PBS explained:

The effect of this amendment was to make everyone in a conspiracy liable for every act of the conspiracy. If a defendant is simply the doorman at a crack house, he is liable for all the crack ever sold from that crack house—indeed, he is liable for all of the crack ever sold by the organization that runs the crack house.

These strict narcotics policies were meant to combat an upsurge in cocaine use in inner cities, but the mandatory sentence applied to illegal drugs across the board. In 2010 alone, nearly 24,000 offenders were convicted of drug related crimes, and two-thirds of them were subject to mandatory minimum penalties. Most of those were for cocaine- or crack-related offenses, but a significant number involved methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin, PCP, and other less widely used drugs. These policies hit low-income, crack cocaine users—even first-time offenders—particularly hard; at the time, crack cocaine was considered to be many times more addictive than powder cocaine, and thus deserving of harsher prison sentences. As such, the sentencing practices unfairly targeted certain economic and racial demographics, the results of which are still visible in prisons today.

"The police, they wiped the black community out in L.A. When I got on the federal airlift with the U.S. Marshals in 1988, the whole plane was full of black people," Rogers recalls of his arrest. "It looked like a slave ship."

For years, Rogers' younger sister Nicole regularly wrote to government officials—all the way up to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Sentencing Commissioner Patty Harris—urging them all to re-assess the strict sentencing guidelines that had impacted her brother's case. "I'm sure they know Ronald's name by heart," Nicole says. "Probably mine too."

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which, among other things, eliminated the mandatory minimum for simply possessing crack cocaine, and in the process, took some initial steps to remedy the racial disparities in prison sentencing. Earlier this year, Lauren Kirchner reported on a U.S. Sentencing Commission analysis that found the act did indeed have a positive effect on prisoners. "According to the study, there were only about half as many prosecutions for crack cocaine offenses in 2014, compared to 2010," Kirchner wrote. "The crack cocaine sentences in 2014 were also much closer to powder cocaine sentences, and, the commission says, this has helped reduce the overall federal prison population."

But for Rogers, this was all meaningless; his conviction didn't involve crack, so he wasn't eligible for a sentence reduction under these new terms provided by the Fair Sentencing Act. As Kirchner noted, many jurisdictions ignored the fact that the 2010 act applied to pre-dating drug-related crimes, leaving many offenders who'd previously received unjustly harsh sentences for crack cocaine to languish in prisons.

Rogers was home for his birthday earlier this month for the first time in 28 years.

In part because of this negligence, overcrowding has reached catastrophic levels in many prisons across the U.S. In California—where the sheer number of inmates has overwhelmed medical staff, creating a health-care crisis—a preventable inmate death occurred every five to six days in 2006, Newsweek reported in March. In a 2011 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowding in California's prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to reduce its prison population.

But the problem is hardly limited to the California corrections system. Across the U.S., prisons are operating at 99 percent capacity, according to the Pew Research Center. Such mandatory sentencing policies have helped drive up prison populations even as crime rates continue to drop, from just over 300,000 inmates in 1978 to a whopping 1.6 million in 2009.

Overcrowding is certainly bad news for the inmates themselves, who suffer negative psychological consequences, decreased access to educational and work opportunities, and increased risk of infection and disease. It also spells trouble for corrections officers: A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found that overcrowding tends to encourage misconduct among inmates. Dale Deshotel, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, spoke about the dangers of the decreasing inmate-to-officer ratio in a 2011 statement before the House Judiciary Committee. "Serious correctional worker understaffing and prison inmate overcrowding problems are resulting in a significant increase in inmate assaults against correctional workers," he explained.

The violence goes both ways. A 2011 investigative report by the Huffington Post into the death of a 24-year-old inmate (with a 20-year sentence for selling $10 worth of crack) at the hands of Alabama corrections officers highlighted the fact that some states have seen the number of cases of officer brutality against inmates rise with prison populations.


The new guidelines created by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce sentences for non-violent drug charges apply to more than just crack offenses, and should help ease some of the burden on the packed institutions. The guidelines went into effect earlier last year, and made Rogers finally eligible for a sentence reduction. Finally, Nicole feels like her prayers have been answered; Rogers was home for his birthday earlier this month for the first time in 28 years, and he'll be released from the halfway house on November 1, just in time for the holidays.

Since the new guidelines apply to offenders currently serving time as well, an additional 46,000 drug offenders may already be eligible for early release, the Washington Post reports, though judges are carefully considering each petition for sentence reduction."Even with the Sentencing Commission's reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the Post. "Moreover, these reductions are not automatic. Under the commission's directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate's sentence."

It appears that Justice officials are coming around to the idea that, in the end, the punitive approach to drug crimes creates more injustice than it rectifies. (Or maybe they just grew tired of the annual $52 billion bill that prisons cost federal and state governments.) After decades of climbing prison populations, real change appears to be on the horizon.

Rogers plans to train to become a long-haul trucker as soon as he leaves the halfway house. He looks forward to the chance to "make a living, be able to work, and take care of family," he says. But while he accepts responsibility for his actions, Rogers is still bitter about what he missed: countless holidays, his sisters' weddings, the death of his father and grandmother, the birth of his five grandchildren. In a week's time, he'll be moving back in with his mother. "At my age I don't need to be staying with my mother," he says. "I should have my own home and my own family, and I don't."