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Drug laws are changing, but problems persist

With the recent commutations of sentences by President Obama -- a total of 42 as of June 3rd and 348 throughout his Presidency -- the commitment to drug reform isn't being ignored. The commutations were issued for individuals who have served harsh or outdated prison sentences. So far, Obama has commuted more sentences than the past seven presidents in total.

Convictions and penalties remain high

Despite these efforts toward reform, drug convictions still remain high and crimes can still be punished harshly. Some in Congress are pushing a Sentencing Reform Act for federal drug crimes that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. But, the bill is being opposed because some "tough on crime" lawmakers argue that offenders could be put back into the population too soon.

Collateral consequences cannot be ignored

Although drug sentences may not be as harsh as they have been historically, the consequences of a conviction remain high. Even a comparatively "short" sentence can still take a person away from their family and community for years.

What's more, a conviction can affect a person for life, even after the sentence is over. A felony conviction can make it difficult, if not impossible, to find a stable job after release. And a drug conviction can prevent a person from being eligible for federal student loans to get an education.

Furthermore, if the underlying addiction hasn't been addressed in prison, the person may just end up returning to drug abuse after being released. It can be extremely hard to cope with the trauma of having been imprisoned, if you have not been given tools to succeed.

Drug charges need to be taken seriously

It remains to be seen whether President Obama will take more steps toward drug reform in his remaining months, and whether the Sentencing Reform Act will become law. In the meantime, it is crucial that anyone facing drug charges - even for simple possession - very seriously.

If you or a loved one is charged with a drug crime, you might get pressured into pleading guilty to make the process go smoother. But don't do anything until you talk to a lawyer. Depending on the circumstances, an attorney may be able to explore defenses or alternative sentencing options that can mitigate some of the long-term consequences of a drug conviction.

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