Pubdate: Mon, 26 Oct 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company


Releasing Nonviolent Drug Offenders Is Only a Start.

THE FEDERAL Bureau of Prisons will release 6,000 inmates locked up 
for non violent drug crime sat the end of the month. If a bi-partisan 
group of senators gets its way, that will be just the beginning. On 
Thursday, the group pushed a criminal justice reform bill through the 
Judiciary Committee that backers say would reduce the federal prison 
population by tens of thousands.

All of this is progress. But even if the bill passes, the number of 
people in prison in the United States would still be astoundingly high.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would adjust mandatory 
minimum sentences, with a focus on reducing penalties for nonviolent 
drug crimes. Only "serious" drug felonies and violent crimes would 
trigger enhanced mandatory sentences of 25, 20 or 15 years. Judges 
would have more leeway to excuse offenders from mandatory sentences, 
but not if they had prior violent or drug trafficking convictions. 
Judges would also be able to offer leniency if they found that "prior 
offenses substantially overstate the defendant' s criminal history 
and danger of recidivism ." The bill retroactively applies the Fair 
Sentencing Act, which removed the difference between sentences for 
crack and powder cocaine. That would help people in prison under old 
rules that are now widely regarded as unfair.

The bill demands that federal prisons assess each prisoner for his or 
her risk of reoffending and continually update these assessments. 
Prison programs would aim to reduce recidivism and would offer 
rewards for successful completion. Prisoners who complete the 
programs and are judged to present a limited reoffending risk would 
be eligible to serve parts of their sentences in pre-release custody 
at home or in a halfway house.

These are good ideas that should reduce the severity and expense of 
federal incarceration without sacrificing public safety. The 
ideologically diverse group of senators who negotiated the package - 
Cory Booker (D-N. J.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Richard J. Durbin 
(D-Ill.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), 
Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Charles E. Schumer 
(D-N.Y.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) - deserves credit for 
striking a bargain that has a good shot at passing Congress.

Even if this bill took full effect, however, the U.S. prison 
population would remain far higher than that of most other nations. 
About half of federal offenders are incarcerated on drug crimes, but 
the vast majority of prisoners are in state, not federal, prisons, 
where the proportion of drug offenders is significantly lower. So 
even if states adopted similar reforms focusing on nonviolent drug 
offenders, the effect would be limited. Five Thirty Eight's Oliver 
Roeder calculates that if the United States released all drug 
offenders from federal and state prisons, the country would still 
have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world - by a 
significant margin. Reducing that is not as simple as letting a few 
pot smokers out of jail.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom