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Toward justice

Published August 16, 2013 1:01 am

For bipartisan prison reforms
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The common sense and human decency that stand behind Attorney General Eric Holder's move to ease up on draconian prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders are enough that even his most vehement critics should be able to reach across the political chasm that is Washington politics and get something done.

And one reason those critics should be able to do so is that many of them — including Utah's Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Mike Lee — are already out in front of the attorney general on this question.

Lee and Chaffetz are sponsors of some strongly bipartisan legislation that would turn away from the irrational get-tough-on-crime mantras that have dominated American politics for far too long and replace them with some relatively small, but smart, ratcheting down of the idea that we can imprison our way to a just and safe society.

Chaffetz is the lead Republican sponsor, along with Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, of what they call The Public Safety Enhancement Act. They call it that for two reasons: It helps insulate them from any allegation that they are soft on crime and it recognizes that public safety will actually be enhanced by not spending billions of dollars and weighing down the system by warehousing millions of non-violent small-time criminals, a large number of them tossed into the clink for decades for minor drug-related infractions.

The gist of the bill is that the downright cruel mandatory minimum sentences attached to so many petty offenses could be accommodated by moving low-risk offenders — and we know who they are — to halfway houses, house arrest, ankle monitors or other methods that cost the taxpayers much less even as they ease each offender's re-entry into law-abiding society.

Lee, meanwhile, has joined with Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin to promote the Smarter Sentencing Act. Another route to the same goal, it would restore to judges the discretion they should never have lost in giving non-violent drug users and small-time couriers minimal sentences, or even probation, rather that ruin their lives and burden the federal Treasury only because, as one ex-prosecutor says, someone had a bad weekend.

For the good of the nation, now and for generations to come, Chaffetz and Lee should find a graceful way to stop bashing the administration in general, and Holder specifically, over distractions such as Fast and Furious and Benghazi and make some real reforms to our criminal justice system.

Both sides have said they see the need. It would be tragic to let this opportunity pass.