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Most people in federal prison for drug offenses have no serious criminal history

In October, the federal government conducted the largest ever release of federal prisoners, letting 6,000 drug offenders out into the world. As bipartisan support pushes criminal justice reform forward at the state and federal levels, Americans should expect these types of releases to continue. But many people, such as Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, are worried this will lead to more crime and chaos.

But there's a good reason not to worry: There's little indication most federal drug offenders are violent or dangerous, even if they were involved in drug trafficking.

A new report from the Urban Institute makes that point: It found that a majority of drug offenders in federal prison have no serious, violent criminal history. A little more than one in five have a minor history, such as simple assault and other crimes that don't typically lead to serious injury. Fewer than one in four drug offenders in federal prison has a serious history.

Most drug offenders in federal prison have no serious history. Urban Institute

The Urban Institute also found that very few of those convicted for drug offenses even had leading or violent roles in drug trafficking organizations. Only 14 percent were sentenced for being a manager, supervisor, leader, or organizer in an offense. Fewer than 14 percent were sentenced for using violence, making a credible threat to use violence, or directing the use of violence during the offense. And more than 75 percent didn't have or weren't in the presence of a weapon during the offense.

The result: There are a lot of people serving long prison sentences — on average, more than nine years, according to Urban Institute — for what amounts to small-time drug dealing. The general consensus among criminal justice reformers is that there's little reason to think this population is a serious risk to society and should be in prison at all or for very long, so maybe releasing them a little early isn't a bad idea.


Correction: The article originally suggested that most federal drug offenders have no criminal history, but they actually have no serious criminal history.