Sentencing of Drug Offenders: Legislative Reforms and Organizational Imperatives

Sara Steen, University of Colorado, Boulder
Rodney L. Engen, North Carolina State University

There is widespread agreement, both among the general public and among criminal justice professionals, that drug offenses have not been handled effectively by the criminal justice system over the past twenty years. During this time, drug offenders have come to occupy an increasingly large proportion of prison space, while at the same time not receiving what they need most--treatment for their addictions. In response, legislative reforms have arisen to provide treatment options for non-violent drug offenders. We examine one such reform in Washington State, in which the legislature introduced an incarcerative drug treatment option for non-violent drug offenders. By conducting interviews with criminal justice personnel and collecting sentencing data both before and after the reforms, we are able to assess not only the influence of these reforms on sentencing practices, but also the impact of organizational imperatives on the success of such reforms. Our results suggest that the success of reforms depends not only on whether or not lawmakers and rule enforcers agree with the values or goals embodied in those reforms, but also on the effect that they have on the process of charging and negotiating pleas with defendants.

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Updated 05/20/2006