Our view

Extending clemency to nonviolent inmates

May 3, 2014 

  • In summary

    Nation has determined that sentencing rules were unfair; now it needs to free those who were unjustly affected.

In 2010, Congress acted to reduce the disparity in mandatory minimum standards used to sentence criminals, particularly in regard to drug offenders. Last week, President Barack Obama announced that the Justice Department would take the next logical step – rescuing some of the thousands of inmates still serving time under the old, unfair sentencing rules.

The president intends to canvass the entire federal prison population – now numbering about 216,000 – to find inmates who are languishing behind bars under the unjustly harsh sentencing laws established during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. While the clemency program will not specifically target the roughly 7,000 inmates serving time for crack-related crimes, the guidelines for granting clemency would cover most of them.

To be eligible for early release, inmates would have to have served at least 10 years of their sentences, have no history of violence, no connections to gangs or organized crime, no significant criminal history and have demonstrated good behavior. All those eligible for clemency would have received significantly lower prison terms if convicted under today’s more lenient sentencing laws.

This effort makes sense on both a practical and moral level. While this policy change is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the federal prison population, it nonetheless would save taxpayers the $30,000-per-year cost of housing each inmate.

More important, the policy addresses the sentencing disparity between those convicted of crimes involving crack and those involving powder cocaine. And because blacks were more likely to use crack and whites more likely to use powder cocaine, the disparity in sentencing also has a racial component.

Sentencing guidelines have been changed to ensure that the disparity does not exist for those now convicted of drug crimes. But the clemency program would apply the revised standards to those already serving time.

While most of these nonviolent offenders pose little direct threat to the public, part of the clemency program should include efforts to rehabilitate them. Those who have spent the past decade or more in federal prisons may lack the education and work skills to find jobs on the outside.

Many also may suffer from substance-abuse problems. Most are likely to need a place to live.

Without some assistance after being freed, many could end up back behind bars. It would be a shame if a rash of former inmates returning to prison created a public backlash against the clemency program.

But with help and careful supervision, inmates should be able to re-enter society successfully. We also hope that this effort will spur a broader one to assess alternatives to locking up so many people.

The federal prison population has increased almost tenfold since 1980. The nation’s entire prison population is now the largest in the world, with about 1 in every 100 adults behind bars.

Many of those hundreds of thousands are where they should be. But, as this clemency effort illustrates, many aren’t.

While the 7,000 or so inmates likely to be eligible for clemency under this program are only a small percentage of the prison population, extending them mercy sends the message that the nation is willing to acknowledge past mistakes and correct them.

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