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Will sentencing reform continue after President Obama?

Virginia is notoriously harsh in the prosecution of people charged with low-level drug offenses. Possession of certain scheduled narcotics has been classified as a class 5 felony, for example. In a law-and-order culture informed by the war on drugs, prosecutors seemingly compete with one another to exact the longest sentences they can manage, often tacking on other charges such as possession of a firearm, to make the incarceration even harsher than it otherwise might be.

The war on drugs has fallen heaviest on users and dealers who are African American and convicted of dealing or using small amounts of drugs, such as crack cocaine.The theory is, if the court system arrests enough drug dealers and users and puts them into prison for a long time, the drug problem would be alleviated.

The results have not borne out that theory; hence the policy of the Obama Justice Department to commute the sentences of many prisoners convicted under Virginia’s harsh drug laws whose lengthy incarceration has not addressed the drug problem and has been increasingly seen as unfair.

The current administration’s efforts to commute drug sentences are laudable, but not likely to survive the change of presidencies. Sentencing reform passed legislatively is needed to reduce the prison population of non-violent drug offenders. States that have instituted sentencing reform have not only seen reduced prison populations but also a reduction in crime. Even Virginia, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust, managed to reduce its prison population by 9 percent between 2008 and 2013 while reducing crime by a whopping 19 percent during the same period. Other states have seen similar results.

However, since many drug crimes are prosecuted in the federal courts, sentencing reform is vitally needed on the national level. Unfortunately, despite bipartisan interest in instituting such reforms, legislative gridlock has stymied efforts thus far.

In the meantime, if you have been charged with a drug offense or any other crime, please contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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