Pubdate: Sun, 07 Aug 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company


President Obama last week commuted the prison terms of 214 federal 
inmates who were sent to prison under draconian, '80s-era laws that 
have since been revised. Among them were 67 people serving life 
sentences, nearly all of them for nonviolent drug offenses.

Mercy was granted in these cases. But the federal clemency system - 
which moves far too slowly and is too often blocked by politics in 
both the Justice Department and the White House - was never intended 
to manage miscarriages of justice that happen on a vast scale, as was 
the case when so many Americans were sent to prison under the "tough 
on crime" policies of the 1980s.

The country needs a variety of mechanisms for reducing unreasonably 
long sentences. And the Justice Department, which has considerable 
latitude in these matters, needs to do more within the course of its 
regular operations to deal with the legacy of sentencing policies 
that have been recognized as destructively unfair.

The former attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., took an important step: 
In 2014, he supported the United States Sentencing Commission's 
decision to reduce sentences for many nonviolent drug crimes and 
asked that people in prison be made eligible for the reductions. 
According to the Justice Department, more than 12,000 people have 
been released under that effort.

Recently, however, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a Justice 
Department agency, has come under criticism for not doing enough with 
the powers it already has to help inmates who deserve to be released. 
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the bureau to ask a 
federal judge to reduce an inmate's sentence when there are 
"extraordinary and compelling" reasons for doing so.

That provision is typically used for elderly or gravely ill inmates. 
But the bureau has the ability to define the term as it sees fit, 
which means that the program could cover people who were unfairly 
sentenced as well. The agency has, however, done virtually nothing on 
this front. The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General 
was sharply critical of the bureau in a 2013 report, noting that the 
agency did not "have clear standards on when compassionate release is 
warranted," which led to ad hoc decisions.

The United States Sentencing Commission took up this issue in April, 
when it broadened compassionate-release criteria. Under the amended 
policy, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release for 
reasons of age, medical condition, family circumstances or "other 
extraordinary and compelling reasons." The commission also urged the 
prison bureau to take cases back to court when the defendant meets 
the criteria laid out in the new policy.

A more broadly conceived compassionate-release mechanism would not by 
itself cure the problem of unfair sentencing. But the Justice 
Department should be using every tool it has to mitigate unfair 
sentences. A system that funnels this problem to the president's 
office is not enough.
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