Opinion

Our Voice: Revised sentencing for drug offenders smart move for government

It may sound counterintuitive to support the release of inmates from prison who still have time left to serve.

But for years, many in the criminal justice system have made sound arguments that sentences for some drug crimes are too long, with convicts receiving harsher punishments than murderers or other violent criminals.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has finally seen fit to lower recommended sentences for drug-dealing felons. They also voted to apply those sentences retroactively to those already serving time.

That means more than 46,000 inmates would be eligible for early release. Many of those have already served more than 10 years of their sentences.

While that may sound like a dangerous proposition, a judge would review each case and decide whether an early release would endanger the public.

Inmates could start being released in November 2015. The commission says sentences would be cut by an average of 25 months.

Disparities in sentencing really ramped up when the United States decided to have a war on drugs in the 1980s amidst a crack cocaine epidemic and sentencing guidelines were dramatically increased.

One result of the harsher sentences is that we now have a prison population that's about 32 percent over capacity.

Half of the total federal prison population are people who committed drug crimes.

"This vote will change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Those in favor of the change say prison costs will be reduced and sentences will be more equitable for similar offenses. Others argue that if prison is indeed for rehabilitation, if someone has been there 18 years, they should have been rehabilitated in that time.

The commission's decision is even broader than U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's recommendations. "This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system," Holder said.

Judges have always had the ability to treat the sentencing guidelines as just that, but most have used the recommendations more like mandatory requirements.

Earlier this year, the commission approved lower sentences across the board for all drug categories.

We've long held that some sentences were out of whack for the crime committed or should at least be equitable across the type of drug involved in the crime. Now the government has finally taken action to make that a reality.

Common sense does prevail, even sometimes at the federal level.

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