Reform of harsh sentences in drug cases is both a just and practical step forward - The Buffalo News

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Reform of harsh sentences in drug cases is both a just and practical step forward

Few would argue at this point that the nation’s decades-old war on drugs has been anything but a wretched failure. It has cost uncounted millions of dollars, sent tens of thousands of people to prison (disproportionately African-American) and helped give this country the world’s largest incarceration rate – and all without putting a dent in drug use.

Slowly, the country is uncoiling itself from this death grip. New York State has relaxed its Rockefeller drug laws, among the nation’s harshest, and now Washington is backing away from mandatory minimum sentences, adopted and clung to since the crack cocaine epidemic hit in the 1980s.

It was always advisable to find a different way to handle drug abusers, of whom there are millions – and many millions more if you include alcoholics. The worst to say of these people, assuming they are not committing other crimes, is that they are addicted. And most people at this point acknowledge addiction as a medical, not a criminal, issue.

Diversion programs to help addicts into treatment make far more sense than throwing these bedeviled individuals into prison. Especially regrettable were the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which at one time could result in a prison sentence of 15 years to life in prison for mere possession of marijuana.

Also severe – though fairly judged on a different standard – were sentences against drug dealers, which could include one friend supplying marijuana to another. Earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to substantially lower recommended sentences for nonviolent drug-dealing felons.

This month it voted unanimously, largely as a cost-cutting proposal, to apply that change retroactively to prisoners now behind bars.

It’s a wise choice, though the application of it should be carefully considered. That is to say, there are drug dealers and there are drug dealers. Not all will merit the clemency envisioned by this policy.

But many will. “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.

In fact, more than 46,000 inmates, many of whom have already served more than a decade in prison, would be eligible to seek release. For those whose crimes never merited a harsh sentence, this could make a huge difference, not just to them but to their families.

The change is also expected to benefit law enforcement and taxpayers, said Attorney General Eric Holder, who called the vote “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.”

With nearly one-half of the federal prison population being held for drug crimes, the cost advantage is obvious. So is the benefit to the cause of justice, which, to be just, must be applied fairly and proportionately.

Neither quality has characterized the nation’s harshest drug laws. Wisely handled, this promises to be a worthy change.

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