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"The only thing was ‘How tough can we be?’" says Eric Sterling, who helped draft the bill as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. "The general sentiment was the public wants it and this is what we should do." Policymakers thought "if we punish, we can smash the supply," he adds. "There wasn’t any real understanding this was a flawed premise."
But starting in the ‘90s, judges began speaking out about inflexible sentences.
Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states — many facing tight budgets and overcrowded prisons — took some steps to ease their drug laws, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
The Justice Department’s clemency review — focusing on non-violent offenders— is part of a larger plan to ease the bloated federal prison system, where nearly half the inmates are serving time for drugs.
Judge advocate » Included in Walker’s petition is a 2011 letter from Judge J. Phil Gilbert, an appointee of President George H. W. Bush., who has called the life term he had to impose in 1999 "excessive and disproportionate." He also praised Walker as "an example of the human spirit at its strongest." Walker’s lawyers have urged his sentence be commuted to 20 years.
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org.
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