Inquirer Editorial: Cruel and usual

Eric Holder CAROLYN KASTER / AP
Eric Holder CAROLYN KASTER / AP
Posted: August 14, 2013

More Americans are in prison today than at any other time in U.S. history: one in 99, according to a Pew Center on the States study. Though the United States has only 5 percent of the world's people, it accounts for 25 percent of its prisoners.

Does this mean that Americans are more criminal than other people? No, it means this country tends to lock people up even when their crimes and potential for rehabilitation warrant alternatives to incarceration.

Mandatory minimum sentences can be a particular affront to justice. They deny judges the discretion to consider extenuating circumstances or a defendant's redeeming qualities. That has been particularly so in drug cases, in which mandatory minimum sentences have caused the federal prison population to explode, increasing 500 percent over the last 30 years.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) has been trying to bring some sanity to federal sentencing. Before passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which he sponsored, possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine (about the weight of two sugar cubes) triggered the same minimum five-year sentence as possessing 500 grams (or about a pound) of powder cocaine. That disparity really hurt African Americans, who made up just 25 percent of crack users but 81 percent of those convicted of crack-related offenses.

Now Durbin and Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) are sponsoring the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 sentencing reforms retroactive, lower other mandatory minimums, and give judges more discretion in sentencing.

Attorney General Eric Holder joined the push for reform Monday in a speech to an American Bar Association gathering in San Francisco. Among other steps to reduce the prison population, Holder said he would instruct federal prosecutors to avoid charges that invoke mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases.

Other bipartisan bills aim to reform sentencing. The Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.), would exempt some nonviolent offenders from mandatory minimums. The Public Safety Enhancement Act, sponsored by Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) and Bobby Scott (D., Va.), would allow more federal prisoners to be moved into community settings.

With federal prisons nearly 40 percent above capacity, it makes even more sense to reduce that population. Federal prisoners cannot be paroled, and the number of federal inmates has gone up even as the nation's total prison population has declined.

Sentencing changes could save taxpayers more than a billion dollars. Half the nation's 218,000 federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, at an annual cost of about $30,000 per inmate.

It's time to change the costly dynamic created by mandatory minimum sentences. That doesn't mean judges should be prohibited from issuing harsh sentences when defendants deserve them. But they should have more flexibility to give qualifying nonviolent defendants less time. That would be better for defendants and taxpayers alike.

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