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Published: Friday, 12/27/2013

GUEST EDITORIAL

Trapped behind bars

WASHINGTON POST

Last week, President Obama granted clemency to eight people who were serving long sentences on crack-cocaine convictions. It was long past time the President acted — and it remains long past time for many others who endure excessive sentences in federal prison.

One person on Mr. Obama’s list was serving three life sentences for participating in a drug deal. Another was handed a life sentence for stashing her boyfriend’s drugs.

These are just two of the nearly 9,000 people who were convicted under harsh anti-crack policies that Congress set in 1986 and revised in 2010. By that point, the old standards were considered unfair as well as needlessly expensive.

“Because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust,” Mr. Obama said last week, “they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

Congress and the President agree that the old rules were unwise, yet many others who are sitting in prison deserve a chance to show that their sentences did not fit their crimes. The fairest and most comprehensive way to give them that chance would come from Congress, which could impose a broad solution and enlist federal judges to apply it.

Lawmakers are considering various ways to ease sentences — and the strain on the prison system — by applying new sentencing standards to old convictions. A bill sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah) would require inmates who seek relaxed punishments to apply to federal judges, who would have leeway to reduce sentences — or leave them in place, if appropriate.

But the President has the unrestricted authority to grant clemency to federal convicts. Thousands of people were sentenced under an unjust system that Mr. Obama has condemned.

Why should he stop with granting clemency to eight of them? If it makes sense for lawmakers to establish a new pathway for relief, it makes sense for the executive branch to apply the same logic with the powers it has.

It is a sign of how much attitudes have changed — for the saner — that a budding criminal justice reform effort has not been met with popular concern or even much notice. Politicians should embrace the opportunity to rebalance how we punish criminals.

Mr. Obama’s latest move is welcome. We hope it is not his last.



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