Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jul 2014
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The Buffalo News


Reform of Overly Harsh Prison Sentences Is Both a Just and Practical 
Step Forward

Few would argue at this point that the nation's decades-old war on 
drugs has been anything but a wretched failure. It has cost uncounted 
millions of dollars, sent tens of thousands of people to prison 
(disproportionately African-American) and helped give this country 
the world's largest incarceration rate - and all without putting a 
dent in drug use.

Slowly, the country is uncoiling itself from this death grip. New 
York State has relaxed its Rockefeller drug laws, among the nation's 
harshest, and now Washington is backing away from mandatory minimum 
sentences, adopted and clung to since the crack cocaine epidemic hit 
in the 1980s.

It was always advisable to find a different way to handle drug 
abusers, of whom there are millions - and many millions more if you 
include alcoholics. The worst to say of these people, assuming they 
are not committing other crimes, is that they are addicted. And most 
people at this point acknowledge addiction as a medical, not a criminal, issue.

Diversion programs to help addicts into treatment make far more sense 
than throwing these bedeviled individuals into prison. Especially 
regrettable were the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which at one 
time could result in a prison sentence of 15 years to life in prison 
for mere possession of marijuana.

Also severe - though fairly judged on a different standard - were 
sentences against drug dealers, which could include one friend 
supplying marijuana to another. Earlier this year, the U.S. 
Sentencing Commission voted to substantially lower recommended 
sentences for nonviolent drug-dealing felons.

This month it voted unanimously, largely as a cost-cutting proposal, 
to apply that change retroactively to prisoners now behind bars.

It's a wise choice, though the application of it should be carefully 
considered. That is to say, there are drug dealers and there are drug 
dealers. Not all will merit the clemency envisioned by this policy.

But many will. "This vote will change the lives of tens of thousands 
of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences," 
said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

In fact, more than 46,000 inmates, many of whom have already served 
more than a decade in prison, would be eligible to seek release. For 
those whose crimes never merited a harsh sentence, this could make a 
huge difference, not just to them but to their families.

The change is also expected to benefit law enforcement and taxpayers, 
said Attorney General Eric Holder, who called the vote "a milestone 
in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement 
resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."

With nearly one-half of the federal prison population being held for 
drug crimes, the cost advantage is obvious. So is the benefit to the 
cause of justice, which, to be just, must be applied fairly and 

Neither quality has characterized the nation's harshest drug laws. 
Wisely handled, this promises to be a worthy change.
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