A majority of Americans believe the punishment for a first-time offense of possessing powder cocaine, crack cocaine, or heroine, should not include jail time, according to a new Huffington Post/YouGov poll.
Participants were asked what the punishment should be for someone with no previous convictions caught with a small amount of each of these drugs. For both heroine and crack, 13 percent said a fine or no punishment, and 40 percent said probation or court-ordered treatment, but no prison time. Another 37 percent opted for varying amounts of jail time, and 12 percent said they weren’t sure. For cocaine, the numbers were very similar. Fifteen percent said a fine or no punishment and 39 percent said probation or court-ordered treatment but not prison.
Under existing federal drug law, by contrast, the mandatory minimum sentence for possession with intent to distribute those drugs in certain quantities is five years in prison. Simple possession that is deemed for personal use, however, is now subject to a civil penalty if the individual has no prior convictions. Before the Fair Sentencing Act reduced some racial disparities in sentencing in 2010, even simple possession of crack cocaine was subject to a five-year mandatory minimum, and many continue to serve those sentences.
In many states, including Washington and California simple possession of any quantity of some of these drugs is an automatic felony potentially carrying a prison sentence of several years. In a 2002 study by the Sentencing Project, 27 percent of drug offenders were in prison for “simple possession,” and another 16 percent for possession with intent to distribute, which can be inferred in some states from the quantity of the drugs.
The poll did not look at low-level players in drug trafficking operations or those with a previous possession offense, often attributable to addiction. Those individuals fare far worse, and account for much of the explosion in the federal prison population. Other surveys suggest Americans oppose prison time for many of these individuals also. A recent Texas survey found that four-fifths of Texans believe non-violent offenders who are not drug traffickers should never be sent to prison, and that other offenders should be given the opportunity to rehabilitate before being sent to prison. And an earlier survey in Florida yielded similar results.