Excessive sentences should be reviewed

May 5, 2014 

It was more than 20 years ago that the prevalence of crack cocaine and the crime explosion it spawned led to “tough on crime” laws that put even nonviolent criminals in prison for long periods of time.

For that matter, it wasn’t that long ago that even possessing small amounts of marijuana, amounts that wouldn’t be regarded as significant by law enforcement today, put people away for years.

Now, President Obama’s Justice Department is surveying the federal prison population with an eye toward offering clemency to inmates whose crimes were nonviolent and relatively low-level.

The bar is pretty high for an inmate to qualify, with priority for possible clemency given to those who have served at least 10 years in prison. Also part of the clemency review: Were these prisoners convicted under laws that today would bring much shorter prison terms with conviction?

That’s fair enough. Whether a person committed a crime in the early ’90s or last week shouldn’t make a significant difference in a sentence, but that is one of the curiosities of the justice system, which is sometimes manipulated by politicians. Most want to be tough, and that means advocating tossing criminals in and throwing away the key.

That’s not only inhumane, it’s not smart. It tosses lives away, lives that might become productive. And it destroys families, having a ripple effect when a minor criminal’s children can go without guidance their entire young lives.

Long sentences for nonviolent crimes also burden the criminal justice system and put a strain on space that would more appropriately be used to house more violent criminals.

A review is not a forecast of a bleeding-heart policy. Criminals who have committed serious crimes need to be behind bars. On that all can agree. But for those who are paying a penalty they wouldn’t pay if convicted today, clemency is a common-sense option.

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