Pubdate: Fri, 02 Oct 2015
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Sacramento Bee


Given politicians' predilection to appear tough on crime, a 
bipartisan compromise to possibly reduce draconian sentences for 
nonviolent drug offenders is a big deal.

The long-awaited agreement, announced Thursday by eight key U.S. 
senators, would put into legislation some of the criminal justice 
reforms that President Barack Obama seeks to leave as a legacy. The 
bill deserves to move forward in Congress.

Among other changes, the measure would shorten mandatory federal 
sentences for repeat drug criminals; give federal judges more 
discretion to make sure that low-level dealers don't get the same 
punishment as drug kingpins; and bring 6,000 inmates under a 2010 law 
that reduced the racially skewed disparity between sentences for 
crack and powder cocaine.

These reforms all recognize the reality that expensive prison cells 
ought to be reserved for violent criminals, not filled by relatively 
minor drug offenders. Locking them up for long sentences wastes money 
that could be much better used, for instance, on drug treatment, 
mental health and job training programs that can help prevent 
offenders from going back to prison.

At the same time, putting away minor offenders is hollowing out some 
minority communities of young men who could be productive citizens 
with the right guidance. That's not good for the future of American 
cities, either.

Obama talked about all that in July when he became the first sitting 
president to visit a federal prison. As the White House pointed out, 
the United States accounts for more than 20 percent of the world's 
entire prison population, far out of proportion with our overall 
population. The numbers in federal and state prisons and local jails 
have jumped from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million.

As usual, California has been ahead of the nation on sentencing 
reform. Voters scaled back the state's "three strikes" law in 2012 
and followed that up last November by turning drug possession and 
other nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2011, 
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature approved realignment to send 
lower-level offenders away from state prisons to county jails and probation.

The agreement outlined Thursday is not a done deal, even to get out 
of the Senate, but it's the kind of smart-on-crime policy America 
sorely needs. By making the criminal justice system somewhat fairer, 
particularly for African Americans, it could lower tensions after the 
Ferguson and Baltimore riots.

That's why many left-leaning groups came out Thursday with at least 
general support for the measure that has Republican backing. The 
Brennan Center for Justice said that it potentially represents "the 
most meaningful reform to our criminal justice system in a 
generation." The Drug Policy Alliance called it "a worthy 
compromise." The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called it 
"an important first step" but said more work is needed on the legislation.

It doesn't go as far as some Democrats and advocates want, but it 
would be a significant advance for saner criminal sentences in this country.
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