Pubdate: Fri, 28 Aug 2015
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2015 The Tribune Co.


A new federal program that reduces drug offenders' long sentences 
should cut costs and improve the judicial system. But the exercise 
requires close monitoring. No one should forget the culprits were 
sent to prison for grave crimes.

The drug trade, after all, kills thousands each year - users and 
those killed in the violent street crimes related to drugs.

Illegal drugs' devastating damage to society should not be minimized 
as federal officials ease sentencing practices.

But, as the Tribune's Elaine Silvestrini found, the Justice 
Department's Smart on Crime Initiative looks to be a reasonable way 
to reduce inordinately long sentences without giving criminals a pass.

As she writes, it 'includes an increase in clemency reviews and a 
retroactive change in sentencing guidelines for drug convictions, 
known as Drugs Minus 2, allowing most drug offenders to receive lower 
sentences.' Silvestrini details the case of two Miami commercial 
fishermen, a father and son, who each received 30-year sentences 
after being convicted of seeking to distribute more than five kilos 
of cocaine in Tampa. The program will allow them to be released after 
serving 22 years, which is hardly getting off easy. The men had no 
prior convictions, nor had they caused any problems in prison.

What's important here is that they have suffered serious 
consequences. The 30-year sentences seem excessive, but five kilos 
can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was not a trivial offense.

Members of both political parties are, rightly, backing off 
supporting the long mandatory sentences that were adopted to fight 
runaway crime in the 1980s.

Even the Koch brothers have joined forces with President Barack Obama 
on the issue. Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent 
drug offenders, including 11 Floridians. Many were serving 20 years or more.

But as society backs away from long sentences, we should not forget 
the importance of holding criminals accountable.

We remember the wildfire of crime that ignited in Florida when 
inmates were released early due to overcrowding. Even violent 
offenders served but a fraction of their sentences.

There is no getting around the simple fact that the surest way to 
protect society from vicious offenders is to keep them behind bars a 
long time. But that doesn't mean every criminal poses the same threat 
to society.

Unbending sentences, particularly for nonviolent crimes, that don't 
address individual circumstances can be unjust and needlessly ruin 
lives while costing taxpayers billions.

The nation spends about $80 billion a year keeping 2.2 million people 
behind bars. Florida spends more than $2.2 billion a year imprisoning 
100,000 inmates.

Federal Public Defender Donna Elm told Silvestrini the new Drugs 
Minus 2 policy would save taxpayers in the Middle District of 
Florida, which includes Hillsborough County, more than $21 million by 
cutting 695 years from prison sentences.

To be sure, there is another side to the equation: Every year about 
40,000 Americans die from illegal drug overdoses, and perhaps 1,000 
or more are killed in homicides related to drug-trafficking.

There is no way to determine how many lives - and families - are 
destroyed by addictions sustained by the drug trade. Keeping drug 
smugglers off the streets has cost benefits not reflected in prison expenses.

So a balance must be maintained as government revises its policies.

The Drug Minus 2 program is expected to result in the early release 
of 240 inmates by the end of the year, a number that will eventually 
increase to 1,500.

It'll be important to attend law enforcement officers' reports on 
whether the policy leads to more crime and more drug transactions.

But such considerations shouldn't keep government from easing off 
unsparing sentences that keep people locked up years more than is 
necessary. Taxpayers and society should benefit from a policy that 
offers a chance for redemption to offenders who have been sufficiently punished.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom