CONGRESSIONAL RECORD ARTICLE EXECUTIVE SESSION Issue and Section: February 12, 2015 - Senate (Vol. 161, No. 24) Page: S955 (PDF)
Realities of Drug Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System
Mr. GRASSLEY. Mr. President and Members of the Senate, as chairman of
the Committee on the Judiciary, I have mentioned publicly that I am
open to certain Federal sentencing, or prison, reforms, and I have
tried to make it very clear that I am very opposed to others.
Today I wish to address the realities of drug sentencing in the
Federal criminal justice system. I do so because there are many myths
that surround this topic.
The myth is that there are thousands of low-level drug offenders,
such as people smoking marijuana, in Federal prison for very long
terms. This is supposed to mean a waste of Federal tax dollars,
overcrowding, and unfairness to people who should not be in prison.
These myths are often used to justify lenient and, frankly, dangerous
sentencing proposals in the U.S. Senate. One of those proposals is the
so-called Smarter Sentencing Act.
It is time to set the record straight, and that is why I am here. It
is important to know how many people are in Federal prison for drug
possession, who they are, and why they are in prison. Then it will be
clear why it is unwise to make wholesale, one-way lenient changes in
drug sentencing. In fiscal year 2013, the most recent year we have
statistics, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission there were
2,332 drug possession cases in the Federal prison. Almost 94 percent
involved marijuana, more than 86 percent were against noncitizens, and
88 percent of the cases arose along the southwest border, so it is
clear why so many noncitizens were charged. Federal drug possessors
were rarely prosecuted for small quantities.
The median amount of drug possession in these southwest border cases,
which are 88 percent of the Federal drug possession cases, was about 48
pounds. Understand, we are not talking about a few ounces of possession
of marijuana. The average is 48 pounds. Can you imagine being in
possession of 48 pounds of illegal drugs? These are not low-level,
casual offenders by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, well over
90 percent of the drug possession cases are along the southwest border.
So more than 80 percent of all Federal drug possession cases were
brought in the State of Arizona.
In that district, the U.S. attorney will agree to charge a drug
trafficker with only drug possession if the offender is a first-time
offender who acted only as a courier. Again, the median quantity of the
amount of possession is 48 pounds, and many who actually committed
trafficking there are charged only with mere drug possession.
Since 88 percent of all Federal drug possession cases derive from the
southwest border, only 270 simple drug possession cases arose anywhere
else in the United States. Get this, please. The odds of an American
being subject to a Federal prosecution for drug possession in any given
year are less than 1 in 1 million. It is also imperative to remember
that mandatory minimum sentences are not an issue in these cases. The
average Federal sentence for drug possession is 5 months; that is, only
5 months--I say that for emphasis--not the years of imprisonment some
of the proponents of lenient sentencing would have us believe.
The brevity of Federal drug possession sentences is emphasized by how
in the vast majority of these cases the median amount of drugs at issue
was 48 pounds. In the 270 cases not along the border, the median amount
of drugs the offender possessed was only 4 grams. The average sentence
was 1.3 months. Most of those convicted were sentenced to probation.
There is no basis whatsoever to advocate change in Federal mandatory
minimum sentencing laws based on drug possession cases since they are
not subject to such mandatory minimums. Anyone who raises drug
possession as an argument against Federal mandatory minimum sentences
is using a stalking horse to lower sentences for much more serious