Sense and sentencing

Federal reforms send strong signals to states such as Ohio to keep more nonviolent drug offenders out of prison


Unreasonable and costly federal sentencing guidelines enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have led to excessive sentences that even judges have objected to. Mandatory-minimum sentences are applied in 15,000 drug cases a year.

Over the past four decades, the nation’s prison population — including Ohio’s — has increased fivefold. Prisons cost state and federal governments $90 billion a year. With only 5 percent of global population, the United States holds 25 percent of the worlds’s prisoners, largely because of Draconian drug sentences.

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In a sign that the nation is finally coming to its senses, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously — and properly — this month to make drug sentencing changes it approved in April retroactive. That policy would reduce average sentences for nonviolent drug offenders by roughly two years, and could enable more than 46,000 federal inmates to leave prison sooner. The change could save the federal government nearly $3 billion a year; each inmate in the federal system costs about $30,000 annually.

Sentencing dates should not dictate sentence lengths. Requiring federal inmates to continue serving prison sentences under terms that the commission has rightly rejected would be illogical and unfair.

The changes won’t affect all federal drug offenders. Among those who aren’t eligible are felons who were given tougher sentences for having a weapon or for obstructing justice.

Nor are the reduced sentences automatic. To get them, prisoners still must petition federal judges for review. The earliest possible release date, set by the commission, is Nov. 1, 2015.

In delaying the releases, the sentencing commission argued that the justice system needs time to handle an expected flood of petitions and probation needs. But the pause is unnecessary and unfortunate. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Even so, the commission’s support for retroactivity will help remedy racially disparate sentencing policies that have plagued the justice system for decades.

Members of Congress do not have to approve the commission’s decision — although they could overturn it, if they act by Nov. 1. That appears unlikely, since doing so would perpetuate the injustices of the past four decades and cost the nation billions of dollars in extra incarceration costs.

The sentencing commission sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges. The changes, therefore, do not affect the 1.6 million people who are locked up in state prisons around the country, including more than 50,000 in Ohio. They cover only the 215,000 prisoners in the federal system, half of whom are serving time for drug crimes.

But the federal reforms send a strong signal to states such as Ohio, which spends $1.5 billion a year on its prison system, to get more nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and keep more of them from going there by diverting them to community-based treatment.

Such reforms need not compromise public safety. A new report by The Sentencing Project found that the three states that led the nation in reducing prison populations in the past decade — New York, New Jersey, and California — also had substantial declines in crime.

All three states reduced their prison populations by more than 22 percent between 1999 and 2012. In that period, their violent-crime rates also dropped more than the national average.

Prison populations fell in those states because of policy changes: diverting drug offenders to treatment programs, reducing the number of offenders who were returned to prison on technical parole violations, and permitting greater judicial discretion in sentencing.

That experience suggests that other states, including Ohio, can do more to reduce costly prison populations without compromising public safety.