Review of Legislative Changes Reveals More Than 30 States Have Reformed Drug Laws Since 2009


New York, NY – Since the “War on Drugs” began 40 years ago, billions of dollars have been spent annually to arrest, prosecute, and lock up nonviolent offenders—mostly young men of color—for drug-related offenses. It has been a major driver of prison overcrowding and inflated corrections budgets, and has devastated communities on the frontlines of drug interdiction and enforcement activities.

Facing significant economic restraints, however, and backed by a growing body of research that community-based treatment and support is a more effective response to drug-related offenses than long terms of incarceration, more and more states are revising the drug laws and sentencing practices already on their books.

A review of these changes is the subject of a new brief from the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), Drug War Détente? A Review of State-level Drug Law Reform, 2009-2013. The brief aims to serve as a guide for policymakers at the federal and state level who are interested in pursuing similar reforms to their own laws and sentencing policies.

The brief, which contains a list of related legislative changes, examines the nearly 50 bills that have been passed by more than 30 states in one or a combination of the following five areas:

  • Mandatory penalties – States are repealing or shortening mandatory minimum sentences, limiting automatic sentence enhancements—for offenses that took place in a designated school zone, for example—and increasing judicial discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum.

    Example: New York’s S 56-B (2009) revised New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, eliminating mandatory minimums for first-time offenders convicted of a Class B, C, D, or E drug felony, among other changes.

  • Drug sentencing schemes – States are adjusting the number of penalty levels (i.e., the number of felony or misdemeanor categories) or the amount of drugs associated with each level, instituting presumptive probation for certain drug offenses, and legalizing, decriminalizing, or lowering penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

    Example: Colorado’s Amendment 64 (2012) legalizes the possession, sale, and transfer of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use in non-public areas. Similar legislation was passed in the state of Washington (Initiative 502, 2012).

  • Early release mechanisms – States have created ways for offenders to reduce their sentence lengths for good behavior or participation in drug treatment programs.

    Example: Kentucky’s HB 564 (2010) establishes a good time sentence credit of 90 days for inmates who complete a drug treatment program of at least six months in duration. Previously, good time credits of 60 days were available only for completion an educational program.

  • Community-based sanctions – States have expanded community-based drug sentencing options, increased incentives for offenders to complete probation or drug treatment, created or strengthened drug courts, and increased access to and investment in drug treatment programs.

    Example: Indiana’s HB 1271 (2010) authorizes city and county courts to establish drug courts. Similar legislation was passed in Alabama (HB 348, 2010), Pennsylvania (SB 383, 2010), South Dakota (SB 70, 2013), and West Virginia (SB 371, 2013).

  • Collateral consequences – States have expanded options for sealing or expunging criminal records and limited restrictions on state benefits and licenses for those with criminal convictions.

    Example: Utah’s HB 33 (2013) adds felony drug possession to the list of offenses that may be expunged and Delaware’s SB 12 (2011) fully repeals the lifetime ban on receiving certain federal benefits for those with a felony drug conviction.

There has also been bipartisan support for reform at the federal level, beginning with Congress’s unanimous passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, and continuing most recently with the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s new guidelines to federal judges and prosecutors that will reduce sentences for those convicted of most federal drug crimes.

“These changes indicate a growing recognition at the state level that there are better ways to respond to drug offenders than mass incarceration,” said Peggy McGarry, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “Combined with Attorney General Eric Holder’s push for a similar re-thinking of the federal criminal justice system’s policies toward drug crimes, these changes indicate that we are on the cusp of a new era of fairer and more cost-effective approaches to drug-involved offenders.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Crime Bill. To examine the legacy of this landmark federal legislation, the lessons learned, and the path ahead, Vera is convening a series of conversations with experts and policymakers in Washington, DC, as well as issuing a series of reports on sentencing trends—where the states stand on mandatory minimums and other sentencing practices and the resulting collateral consequences. This report is the second in that series. Look for updates on our website.