A big step forward for sane sentencing

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, right, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shake hands Thursday at a news conference to announce a bill on federal sentencing reform.
Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, right, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shake hands Thursday at a news conference to announce a bill on federal sentencing reform. The Associated Press

Given politicians’ predilection to appear tough on crime, a bipartisan compromise to possibly reduce draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenders is a big deal.

The long-awaited agreement, announced Thursday by eight key U.S. senators, would put into legislation some of the criminal justice reforms that President Barack Obama seeks to leave as a legacy. The bill deserves to move forward in Congress.

Among other changes, the measure would shorten mandatory federal sentences for repeat drug criminals; give federal judges more discretion to make sure that low-level dealers don’t get the same punishment as drug kingpins; and bring 6,000 inmates under a 2010 law that reduced the racially skewed disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

These reforms all recognize the reality that expensive prison cells ought to be reserved for violent criminals, not filled by relatively minor drug offenders. Locking them up for long sentences wastes money that could be much better used, for instance, on drug treatment, mental health and job training programs that can help prevent offenders from going back to prison.

At the same time, putting away minor offenders is hollowing out some minority communities of young men who could be productive citizens with the right guidance. That’s not good for the future of American cities, either.

Obama talked about all that in July when he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. As the White House pointed out, the United States accounts for more than 20 percent of the world’s entire prison population, far out of proportion with our overall population. The numbers in federal and state prisons and local jails have jumped from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million.

As usual, California has been ahead of the nation on sentencing reform. Voters scaled back the state’s “three strikes” law in 2012 and followed that up last November by turning drug possession and other nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature approved realignment to send lower-level offenders away from state prisons to county jails and probation.

The agreement outlined Thursday is not a done deal, even to get out of the Senate, but it’s the kind of smart-on-crime policy America sorely needs. By making the criminal justice system somewhat fairer, particularly for African Americans, it could lower tensions after the Ferguson and Baltimore riots.

That’s why many left-leaning groups came out Thursday with at least general support for the measure that has Republican backing. The Brennan Center for Justice said that it potentially represents “the most meaningful reform to our criminal justice system in a generation.” The Drug Policy Alliance called it “a worthy compromise.” The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called it “an important first step” but said more work is needed on the legislation.

It doesn’t go as far as some Democrats and advocates want, but it would be a significant advance for saner criminal sentences in this country.