Herald-Leader Editorial

Right stand for sane sentencing; Holder reforms moral and practical

August 14, 2013 

Attorney General Eric Holder announced bold and sweeping reforms Monday that would help nonviolent drug offenders bypass the strict mandatory-minimum sentencing laws that have decimated families, overstuffed prisons and squandered billions of dollars.

"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law-enforcement reason," Holder said in his speech before the American Bar Association's annual meeting.

And he's right.

Holder's reforms — similar to recent prison reform in Kentucky — will instruct federal attorneys to use prosecutorial discretion and pursue lighter sentences for nonviolent offenders who don't have significant criminal records or ties to organized crime.

The move restores sanity and much-needed nuance to a legal system that often handcuffed prosecutors and judges into dealing unfair and draconian sentences — like the 20-year sentence handed out to a Florida woman for firing a warning shot during a confrontation with her abusive husband.

Transitioning from a narrow "tough on crime" attitude of the last few decades to one that is instead "smart on crime" better targets government spending in a time of economic sluggishness.

The federal government spends more than $20,000 on an inmate each year, depending on his or her security level. Incarcerating only those who pose actual threats to society is a fiscally responsible step, already practiced successfully in traditionally conservative states including Texas and Arkansas and endorsed by prominent Republicans Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich.

In Kentucky, just two years ago, Gov. Steve Beshear signed a similar reform bill into law that lowered sentences for low-risk offenders and shifted more resources toward drug-treatment programs.

The laws are expected to save Kentucky $422 million over 10 years.

Sen. Rand Paul also deserves credit for fighting mandatory minimum laws in Congress, recently introducing the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would restore the discretion of federal judges to mete out punishments that fit crimes.

The new changes are also a moral solution to the failed drug war that has disproportionately targeted minority and low-income Americans. Those who consider family security as the most important headwind against criminal activity must recognize that mass incarceration, which destroys families and diminishes employment prospects, is a part of the problem — not the solution.

Millions of families are being torn apart by the failed and costly experiment of mass incarceration. Even though Americans make up just five percent of the world's population, they make up 25 percent of the world's prisoner population.

And America's juvenile detention rate also is the highest in the world — nearly five times higher than the next country on the list.

Our overzealous criminal-justice system has led to California prisons that the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutionally overcrowded, the discriminatory stop-and-frisk program in New York City that a judge invalidated Monday, a predatory private prison industry, and ballooning state deficits — not enhanced public safety.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

It's good to see that our justice system is catching up.

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