The inmate population serving drug-related sentences in U.S. federal prisons has increased more than 1,800 percent since 1980.

The Pew Charitable Trusts (PCT) published an issues brief that showed mandatory drug sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have contributed to an ever-growing federal prison system budget ($6.7 billion currently) – with few positive outcomes.

“In response to rising public concern about high rates of drug-related crime in the 1980s and 1990s, Congress enacted sentencing laws that dramatically increased penalties for drug crimes, which in turn sharply expanded the number of such offenders in federal prison and drove costs upward,” PCT explained.

“These laws – while playing a role in the nation’s long and ongoing crime decline since the mid-1990s – have not provided taxpayers with a strong public safety return on their investment.”

Mandatory minimums, which give judges little discretion in sentencing length, have been a leading contributor to the growth of drug-related imprisonment.

“As of 2010, more than 8 in 10 drug offenders in federal prisons were convicted of crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences,” PCT said.

The report said, “Research credits the increased incarceration of drug offenders with only a 1 to 3 percent decline in the combined violent and property crime rate” and cited a 2014 National Research Council study that found “‘few if any deterrent effects'” from mandatory minimums.

In “Through the Door,”’s faith and prisons documentary, several interviewees spoke about drug-related crimes and imprisonment.

“If you had to choose one element of why people are in prison at the rates they’re in today, drug addiction, drug abuse is it. That’s king,” said documentary interviewee William Gupton, assistant commissioner of rehabilitative services for the Tennessee Department of Correction.

David Valentine, pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church in Huntsville, Texas, speaking about persons with drug addictions facing the possibility of imprisonment, emphasized, “They need therapy. They don’t need incarceration in a prison system.”

Prison reform has been one of the few issues with bipartisan support in recent years, with both parties recognizing that the prison system is broken.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), for example, have collaborated on prison reform legislation that proposes to “amen[d] the federal criminal code to direct the court to impose a sentence for specified controlled substance offenses without regard to any statutory minimum sentence” if certain conditions are met.

Prison reform was a key focus in the 2014 and 2015 State of the State addresses delivered by both Republican and Democratic governors, with several emphasizing the need for alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenses.

The full PCT issues brief is available here.

Editor’s note: articles related to prison reform are available here. Details about “Through the Door” are available here.

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