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Draconian sentences

Published August 14, 2013 1:01 am

The Denver Post
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Attorney General Eric Holder may be a latecomer to the sentencing reform movement for non-violent drug offenders, but at least he has seen the light in time for this administration to take meaningful action.

And Holder is correct about the practical and moral reasons for doing so.

The practical reasons have to do with the cost of bulging federal prisons — which the Justice Department says are nearly 40 percent over capacity.

The moral imperative stems from the sometimes draconian minimum sentences required under federal sentencing guidelines for crimes of non-violent possession — guidelines that limit judges' discretion.

"We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken," Holder said Monday at the American Bar Association in San Francisco. "And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget."

As Holder acknowledged, the key is to change sentencing guidelines, which requires congressional action. That may sound like a tall order, but even in this sharply divided Congress progress may be possible.

A Senate bill on sentencing reform, for example, is supported by the unlikely alliance of Democrats Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin, and Republicans Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

Meanwhile, a number of states have taken action on a bipartisan basis to limit prison time for low-level drug offenders.

We have mixed reactions to the other elements of Holder's initiative. On the positive side, he seeks to leave more drug cases to the states and to release, when reasonable, elderly prisoners serving time for non-violent crimes.

But we wonder about his intention to have federal prosecutors change how they write their criminal complaints to avoid triggering mandatory sentences. If the law is misguided, it should be revised, not circumvented by an executive branch that disagrees with it.

For the most part, however, Holder's initiative is both welcome and overdue.