Drug Sentencing and Penalties

Drug Sentencing and Penalties

The United States’ 40-year war on drugs has sent millions of people to prison for low-level offenses, contributing to the United States’ status as the world’s largest incarcerator and seriously eroded our civil liberties and civil rights while costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year.

TheUncovery.org -- Uncover the Facts

There are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country — that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 — and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses. Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. The war on drugs has also been a war on communities of color. The racial disparities are staggering: despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated on drug charges at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.

When we incarcerate drug offenders, they stay locked up for lengthy periods of time — and often forever. We increasingly sentence them to life in prison under three-strikes-and-you’re-outlaws for petty drug crimes. Disappointingly, our Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of laws imposing disproportionate mandatory sentences of life without parole for simple possession of drugs. The ACLU has called for mandatory minimums to be abolished or reformed because they generate unnecessarily harsh sentences, tie judges’ hands in considering individual circumstances, create racial disparities in sentencing and empower prosecutors to force defendants to bargain away their constitutional rights.

Latest News & Updates


Statement of American Civil Liberties Union, Submitted to the 57th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs

The ACLU submitted its statement to the 57th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs under the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, addressing the "War on Drugs" and harsh criminalization policies that have led to over-incarceration and large racial disparities in drug sentencing.

Fair Sentencing Act

In June 2011, the United States Sentencing Commission took a step toward creating fairness in federal sentencing by retroactively applying the new Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) guidelines, which address unfair sentencing disparities for certain offenses, to individuals sentenced before the law was enacted. This decision will help ensure that over 12,000 people — 85 percent of whom are African-Americans — will have the opportunity to have their sentences for crack cocaine offenses reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced.

War on Drugs (2011 Blog Series)

June 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of a "war on drugs" — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world's largest incarcerator.

Marijuana Law Reform

Law enforcement's selective targeting low-level marijuana possession is a waste of limited resources. More people than ever before believe that marijuana should be decriminalized.


Just Say No to the War on Drugs (2011 Video)

Comedian Elon James White takes on the failed and costly 40-year war.


Dorsey v. U.S. and Hill v. U.S.

Supreme Court cases considering whether the federal Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, applies to defendants who committed their offenses before the Act was passed but were sentenced after its passage.

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