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Eye On Boise

Experts at criminal justice reform conference say problematic drug sentencing laws from ‘80s remain on books

Leading experts on criminal justice reform are gathered at Concordia University School of Law today for an all-day conference; later this morning, 1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador will give a keynote address. Already, there’ve been compelling presentations from experts about what’s wrong with the nation’s criminal justice system, which saw a dramatic increase in violent crime from 1960 to 1992 that led to an even more dramatic increase in incarceration as Congress got tough on crime – far beyond historical incarceration rates in the U.S. and a trend that continued even after crime rates began falling. By the recession in 2008, states and the federal government were finding the costs of mass incarceration wildly unsustainable. The justice reinvestment movement – of which Idaho is a part – is now seeking to reduce incarceration rates while still reducing crime.

“Yes, more imprisonment can help up to a point, but less prison can also work,” Jonathan Wroblewski, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, “and it can work even better if we’re willing to invest in ... smart crime reduction strategies.”

The “War on Drugs” that led to stiff mandatory minimum sentences – tied not to the circumstances of the crime, but the amount and type of drugs involved – led to huge numbers of non-violent drug offenders serving long prison terms.

“Eighty percent of federal drug prisoners have no history of violence, and more than 25 percent have no criminal history at all,” said Alex Kreit, professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and a nationally recognized expert and textbook author on controlled substances and marijuana regulation. “This, in a nutshell, is what is driving interest in federal drug sentencing reform.”

Though some reforms have happened, notably congressional action in 2010 to reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine sentences and a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed more discretion in charging drug crimes, federal drug sentencing laws remain largely unchanged, several speakers noted – including mandatory minimum sentence laws enacted in the 1980s. Labrador is a co-sponsor of a major sentencing reform bill, but it hasn’t advanced.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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