Pubdate: Thu, 31 Jul 2014
Source: Citizens' Voice, The (Wilkes-Barre, PA)
Copyright: 2014 The Citizens' Voice
Note: Dallas Morning News editorial


America's effort to use our prisons to stem the illegal drug problem
has largely failed.

Incarceration of drug offenders has seen prison and jail populations
skyrocket, even as public opinion has shifted away from harsh
sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

That's why the U.S. Sentencing Commission was right to decide this
month that some 50,000 federal drug trafficking offenders could be
eligible for reduced sentences. The amendment to federal sentencing
guidelines, approved in April, is already in effect for offenders
facing sentencing in the future, creating an issue of fairness: Why
should the length of a sentence be determined by the date of sentencing?

The commission's unanimous decision could see inmates get an average
of two years off their prison terms, according to a report in The
Washington Post.

America's approach to its drug problem is in evolution. Marijuana is
now legal for recreational use in Colorado and Washington. Sentences
for peddling crack cocaine are now no more severe than those for
peddling powdered cocaine.

Many Americans agree that the nation lost its way with its war on

Still, the prospect of so many prisoners being released back into
society properly raised the concern of a large number of prosecutors
and judges who opposed the commission's decision.

The sentencing commission was sensitive to this concern and set an
effective date of Nov. 1, 2015, for the release of any prisoner.
Prisoners may begin applying for sentence reductions in November.

That demonstrated a fair understanding of the complexity of the

The changes apply to traffickers of all drugs, but it's not yet clear
exactly how many of the estimated 50,000 eligible prisoners will
actually see their sentences reduced.

Drug offenders will certainly apply for the reductions, but judges
will still have to determine whether the person is a danger to society
and should remain imprisoned for the full length of his or her
original sentence. Judges can also consider how inmates behaved after
they were sentenced. In other words, those who were violent in prison,
or continued to deal drugs, or acted as gang leaders hopefully won't
be roaming the streets sooner than they should.

But thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of drug offenders who
the courts decide are not dangerous could be returned to society
earlier than expected.

There's no doubt that will create a challenge. But there's also little
doubt that America will not incarcerate itself out of an illegal drug
problem that has destroyed the fabric of large swaths of the country.

Advocates of reform did not get everything they might want from the
sentencing commission. Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug
offenses remain in place, for example.

But the amendment to the guidelines does offer judges flexibility to
review offenders' cases and decide whether they deserve the chance to
return to society sooner.  
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