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Retroactive justice for non-violent drug offenders

The US Sentencing Commission took a strong step toward ending the practice of warehousing non-violent drug offenders last week by unanimously voting to make nearly 50,000 federal drug inmates eligible for shorter sentences. The vote continues the belated, but welcome trend toward reconsideration of the harsh effects of mandatory drug sentencing.

Last spring, the commission voted to reduce most drug-crime penalties, following a decision last year by Attorney General Eric Holder to stop prosecuting low-level, non-violent drug offenders with mandatory sentences. Earlier, Congress had moved to narrow the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine minimums, while many states — even in conservative parts of the country — chose to create alternatives to prison that emphasized treatment and rehabilitation.

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With federal prisons crowded at a level 32 percent above capacity and costing taxpayers more than $6 billion a year, Sentencing Commission Chairwoman Patti Saris said it was time to relieve the burden on the system, especially since statistics showed no difference in the recidivism rate of non-violent drug offenders who were released early versus those who served their full sentences.

It won’t be until November 2015 that the first 8,000 eligible offenders could actually be released, representing, according to Saris, “a well-reasoned approach to appropriately reduce prison costs and overcapacity, while safeguarding public safety.” It also is a wise step toward bolstering communities torn apart by the long prison terms given to drug-addicted men and women who would benefit far more from treatment.

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