NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Scholars Dispute Justice's Prison-term Data

August 20, 2001

Two law professors are taking issue with a new Justice Department report which claims that prison sentences imposed on drug offenders have escalated since 1991. Frank O. Bowman III at Indiana University and Michael Heise at Case Western Reserve University state that federal drug sentences have been declining "steadily and dramatically" for nearly a decade.

The researchers base their conclusions on figures maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

  • The Justice Department says that between 1986 and 1999, average prison terms imposed on drug offenders increased from 62 months to 75 months and that the average term drug offenders could expect to serve rose from 30 months to 66 months.
  • The department also claims that more than 38,000 people were referred to federal prosecutors for suspected drug offenses during 1999 and that 84 percent of those were subsequently charged in a federal court.
  • Using figures from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, however, the professors found the average federal drug sentence decreased from 95.7 months to 75.2 months in the eight years between 1991 and 1999 -- a drop of 21 percent.
  • They also said that U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics reported "a less precipitous but still unmistakable decline in average drug sentences" from 88.2 months in 1992 to 75.2 months in 1999 -- a decline of 14.7 percent.

Bowman claims that at "virtually every point in the sentencing process" where prosecutors and judges could exercise discretionary authority to reduce drug sentences "they have done so."

Source: Jerry Seper, "Prison Terms Decreased Over Past Decade, Scholars Say," Washington Times, August 20, 2001; John Scalia, "Federal Drug Offenders, 1999, with Trends 1984-99" (NCJ-187285), Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, August 19, 2001.


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