Email, Marc Mauer, executive director, The Sentencing Project, June 10, 2016
I've reviewed Rep. Gohmert's remarks, and I think there's a major flaw in the discussion. Rep. Gohmert is addressing the issue of the citizenship of inmates in federal prison for drug possession. First, I agree with you that his figure of 77% who are non-citizens conflicts with the Bureau of Prisons figure of 95.5%, so perhaps he was using an older source.
But the more critical issue is that the vast majority of people in federal prison for a drug offense are there on a conviction for selling drugs, not possessing drugs. As of April 2016, there were 85,124 people in federal prison for a drug offense. Therefore, if there were about 514 incarcerated for drug possession, that would represent less than 1% of the total.
While I can't immediately obtain data on the overall citizenship figures for drug offenders in prison, we have good data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission on the citizenship of drug offenders convicted of a drug offense. In 2015, of the 20,559 drug offender convictions, 74.9% were U.S. citizens and 25.1% were non-citizens. See Sentencing Commission table here.
So, the 25% figure is far more useful in discussing these issues than the one cited by Rep. Gohmert.
In the context of the current debate on sentencing reform, several points to consider. First, when non-citizens are released from federal prison after serving their sentences, a substantial portion of them are deported to their home countries, so they are not necessarily able to "murder, rob, and burglarize" as characterized by Rep. Gohmert. And under the proposed process established under the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act being considered in Congress, as well as the action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce the term of incarceration of many federal drug offenders, inmates would become eligible for a sentence reduction, but would still have to appear before a federal judge to decide upon their release. It's also important to note that most drug sellers in federal prison are not the "kingpins" of the drug trade; rather, they are more likely to be in the lower- or middle-levels, such as mules, couriers, etc.
Finally, the reason that there is now bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform is that there is a growing consensus that federal policy in this area has been overly punitive, has had diminishing effects on public safety, and has come at a high monetary and human cost.
Hope this is helpful.
The Sentencing Project
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