Pubdate: Sat, 03 May 2014
Source: Herald, The (SC)
Copyright: 2014 The Herald


In 2010, Congress acted to reduce the disparity in mandatory minimum
standards used to sentence criminals, particularly in regard to drug
offenders. Last week, President Barack Obama announced that the
Justice Department would take the next logical step - rescuing some of
the thousands of inmates still serving time under the old, unfair
sentencing rules.

The president intends to canvass the entire federal prison population
- - now numbering about 216,000 - to find inmates who are languishing
behind bars under the unjustly harsh sentencing laws established
during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. While the
clemency program will not specifically target the roughly 7,000
inmates serving time for crack-related crimes, the guidelines for
granting clemency would cover most of them.

To be eligible for early release, inmates would have to have served at
least 10 years of their sentences, have no history of violence, no
connections to gangs or organized crime, no significant criminal
history and have demonstrated good behavior. All those eligible for
clemency would have received significantly lower prison terms if
convicted under today's more lenient sentencing laws.

This effort makes sense on both a practical and moral level. While
this policy change is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the federal
prison population, it nonetheless would save taxpayers the
$30,000-per-year cost of housing each inmate.

More important, the policy addresses the sentencing disparity between
those convicted of crimes involving crack and those involving powder
cocaine. And because blacks were more likely to use crack and whites
more likely to use powder cocaine, the disparity in sentencing also
has a racial component.

Sentencing guidelines have been changed to ensure that the disparity
does not exist for those now convicted of drug crimes. But the
clemency program would apply the revised standards to those already
serving time.

While most of these nonviolent offenders pose little direct threat to
the public, part of the clemency program should include efforts to
rehabilitate them. Those who have spent the past decade or more in
federal prisons may lack the education and work skills to find jobs on
the outside.

Many also may suffer from substance-abuse problems. Most are likely to
need a place to live.

Without some assistance after being freed, many could end up back
behind bars. It would be a shame if a rash of former inmates returning
to prison created a public backlash against the clemency program.

But with help and careful supervision, inmates should be able to
re-enter society successfully. We also hope that this effort will spur
a broader one to assess alternatives to locking up so many people.

The federal prison population has increased almost tenfold since 1980.
The nation's entire prison population is now the largest in the world,
with about 1 in every 100 adults behind bars.

Many of those hundreds of thousands are where they should be. But, as
this clemency effort illustrates, many aren't.

While the 7,000 or so inmates likely to be eligible for clemency under
this program are only a small percentage of the prison population,
extending them mercy sends the message that the nation is willing to
acknowledge past mistakes and correct them.
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