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Federal prison population demographics

South Carolina residents are likely aware that mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses have been roundly criticized by both Republican and Democrat lawmakers. The harsh sentencing laws were introduced during the 1980s as crack cocaine became a nationwide problem, and they led to federal prison populations increasing by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2012, according to some sources. About half of the nation's 200,000 or so federal inmates are serving sentences for drug offenses, and the Urban Institute released a report on Oct. 27 about the demographic makeup of this prison population.

The organization based its report on data provided by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons. It found that most inmates serving drug sentences for had been convicted for offenses involving powdered or crack cocaine, and more than a third of drug offenders had minimal contact with law enforcement before their drug arrest. According to the Urban Institute report, federal drug prisoners are overwhelmingly male and more than three quarters of them are non-white.

While advocates for criminal justice reform will likely be unsurprised by these findings, they may be pleased that a bipartisan bill dealing with mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses was passed by the Senate Judiciary committee on Oct. 22. In addition to reducing some mandatory minimum sentences, the bill gives judges more discretion in certain situations and increases the number of inmates to be released early.

Criminal defense attorneys may closely scrutinize the evidence in a drug case for indications that police officers may have violated the constitutional rights of their clients. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable search and seizure, and drug charges may be dismissed if a search is deemed to have been unconstitutional or when police officers go beyond the scope established in a search warrant.

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