You choose, we deliver
If you are interested in this story, you might be interested in others from The Journal Gazette. Go to www.journalgazette.net/newsletter and pick the subjects you care most about. We'll deliver your customized daily news report at 3 a.m. Fort Wayne time, right to your email.

Editorial columns

  • Film gives public education boosters a say
    Rocky Killion is the Clark Kent of public education – the superman many have waited for.
  • Harassment fuels race riots
    SWAT teams and angry protesters clashed in a small St. Louis suburb for a third day Tuesday, following the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The eruption of protests and violence has been a long time coming.
  • Overhaul needed in physician training
    Here’s a deal you might be interested in. You get $10 billion a year of taxpayers’ money to do something you may well have done anyway. You don’t need to say what you spend it on, or why.
Advertisement

Drug-law reforms overdue

During the urban crime crisis of decades ago, federal and state governments cracked down on crime. Tough measures, such as harsh sentencing laws, led to an eight-fold increase in the federal prison population since 1980. These laws helped lower crime rates, but the increase in incarceration was expensive and imprisoned some people for longer than they deserved.

So Attorney General Eric Holder has been using the powers of the Justice Department to reform how the federal government punishes drug offenders. Last week he asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission to chip in.

The commission had begun a broad rebalancing of the nation’s criminal justice system. Its current plan is to reduce the severity of charging recommendations for a variety of lower-level drug crimes. Though tough minimum-sentencing guidelines were supposed to be aimed at bigger fish, the commission found that they often netted minnows, catching couriers and mules rather than suppliers and organizers. The commission found that the higher up offenders were in the illegal drug trade, the more likely they were to get hit with tough minimum sentences. But half of federal drug cases in 2009 were brought against people in the lower rungs, and many were still subject to minimum penalties.

The commission can do only so much by itself. So Holder is instructing prosecutors to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders more leniently.

Congress is best situated to reform sentencing policy; the law must change before the commission can do much more, and there are limits to the discretion Holder can or should use.

Many prosecutors oppose leniency, arguing that tough sentencing guidelines give them more leverage. That’s true, but it’s no defense of punishments that are tougher than they should be. Some prosecutors also argue that minimum sentences promote consistency; yet the Sentencing Commission found that the reverse is often true because many prosecutors and judges weren’t comfortable throwing the book at offenders.

The critics are right about one thing: Saving money can’t be the primary reason for reform. But when fiscal sanity meshes with more fairly matching crime and punishment, officials should be thankful for a rare win-win.

Advertisement