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Pardons usher in sensible reforms

Last week, President Barack Obama granted clemency to eight people serving long sentences on crack-cocaine convictions. It was long past time the president acted – and it remains long past time for many others enduring excessive sentences in federal prison.

One person on Obama’s list, Clarence Aaron, was serving three life sentences for participating in a drug deal. Another, Stephanie George, was handed a life sentence for stashing her boyfriend’s drugs. These are just a couple of the nearly 9,000 people convicted under harsh anti-crack policies that Congress established in 1986, then revised in 2010. By that point, the old standards were widely considered unfair as well as needlessly expensive.

“Because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust,” Obama said last week, “they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

Congress and the president agree that the old rules were unwise, yet many others sitting in prison deserve a chance to show that their sentences did not fit their crimes. The fairest and most comprehensive way to give them that chance would come from Congress, which could impose a broad solution and enlist federal judges to apply it. Lawmakers are considering various ways to ease sentences – and the strain on the prison system – by applying new sentencing standards to old convictions. A bill sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, would require inmates seeking relaxed punishments to apply to federal judges, who would have leeway to reduce sentences.

But the president has the unrestricted authority to grant clemency to federal convicts. Thousands of people were sentenced under an unjust system the president has condemned. Why should he stop with granting clemency to only eight? If it makes sense for lawmakers to establish a new pathway for relief, it makes sense for the executive branch to apply the same logic with the powers and resources it already has.

A couple of decades ago, when urban crime was a raging issue, letting even eight crack offenders out of prison would have been politically treacherous. It is a sign of how much attitudes have changed – for the saner – that a budding criminal justice reform effort has not been met with popular concern or even much notice. Politicians should embrace the opportunity to rebalance, in a measured way, how the country punishes criminals. Obama’s latest move is welcome. We hope it is not his last.