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Right to confront sentencing reform

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POSTED August 17, 2013 1:26 a.m.

There are numerous issues that should be labeled a national epidemic, but few are as important as the ridiculous and onerous laws on the books on the federal and state level that have led to a massive incarceration problem in the United States.

For decades this nation has had to contend with the lunacy of a “lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key” mentality that has destroyed families and driven up the cost of incarceration for taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars.

Both political parties, and, yes, the voters, are to blame for this madness. Democrats were scared to death of being called soft on crime, and the GOP couldn’t go far enough when it came to imprisonment. They played on the fears of voters who somehow thought locking up more and more Americans, especially for drug offenses, was smart policy.

But here we stand in 2013 and too many of our states are spending billions of dollars on incarceration, and the federal government is using more of taxpayer dollars to do the same.

What is pretty interesting is that conservatives and Republicans who are tired of big government taxing Americans have found themselves on the same page as liberals and Democrats who have long fought these immoral, unjust and detrimental laws.

Thank goodness bipartisanship and common ground can be found on an important part of public policy.

That’s why Monday’s announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder to stop certain nonviolent drug offenders from being saddled with mandatory minimum sentences is so important in leading the way to change the culture and mindset of America when it comes to drug imprisonment.

In a speech before the American Bar Association, Holder spoke clearly and convincingly about changes to a policy that has been an utter failure.

“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them,” Holder said.

“It’s clear — as we come together today — that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.”

•Federal prison population is up 800 percent since 1980.

•Federal prisons are operating at 40 percent above capacity.

•America incarcerates a third of the world population, but only make up 5 percent of it.

•Almost half of America’s 219,000 federal inmates are there on drug-related crimes.

•Forty percent of former federal prisoners and 60 percent of state prisoners are re-arrested or have supervision revoked within three years of release.

There really is no defending such ridiculous numbers. Continuing to throw folks in jail who belong in substance abuse centers simply makes no sense. Think about it: What if every American facing a drug problem got the Lindsay Lohan treatment? In America, if you have the resources, you can stay out of jail and reside in rehab. But if you’re poor, and especially a minority, forget about it.

“We also must confront the reality that — once they’re in that system — people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers,” Holder said. “One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that — in recent years — black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable — it is shameful. It’s unworthy of our great country and our great legal tradition.”

All of the nation’s mandatory minimum sentencing problems won’t be solved by Holder’s announcement. There is a lot more work to do to fix this wrong. But if it is the latest step in changing the detrimental mindset of Americans, it is a step in the right direction.

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