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Another view: Encouraging signs to reform unfair drug-sentencing laws

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

The news from Capitol Hill on Thursday was sobering: House Speaker John Boehner threw cold water on hopes for immigration reform this year. But those who long for smart bipartisanship in Washington need not despair. There is still the Smarter Sentencing Act.

The bill, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, would cut minimum sentences in half for many drug offenses. And, importantly, it would make the reduced crack sentences passed in 2010 retroactive, allowing for the release of thousands now languishing in federal prison under outdated, racially unjust guidelines.

This is not just about fairness. The mandatory-minimum laws passed in the 1980s, at the height of the crack epidemic, are having serious economic consequences today.

The federal inmate population has grown eightfold since 1980 to 218,000 today; half are drug offenders. Federal prisons consume about a quarter of the Justice Department budget.

That dual sense of moral obligation and fiscal responsibility is why the Smarter Sentencing Act has such an ideologically diverse base of support.

It was introduced last summer by an unlikely pair (always a good sign): tea party stalwart Mike Lee, R-Utah, and liberal Dick Durbin, D-Ill. A disparate group of senators are supporting it, including Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Democrats Patrick Leahy and Carl Levin.

The bill is one of several sentencing and prison reforms that could reverse the upward trend in federal incarcerations.

In December, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced the Federal Prison Reform Act, which aims to increase efficiencies in prisons and reduce recidivism. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have proposed a bill aimed at reducing recidivism, And Reps. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Bobby Scott, D-Va., are co-sponsoring the House version of the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Note the commingling of D’s and R’s in these lists. The return of bipartisanship in the name of common-sense reform is both welcome and overdue.

The Dallas Morning News

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