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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Smarter federal justice close at hand

Republicans and Democrats have coalesced around the idea of federal sentencing reform to address the nation’s high incarceration rate, but proposed legislation is serving a longer stretch in Congress than it should.

House and Senate bills were introduced in 2013. Task forces were formed and reauthorized and hearings were held. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, was the Republican sponsor in the House.

But by the end of 2014, no action was taken.

Labrador reintroduced the House bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015. A Senate version also reappeared. But more than a year later, there still is no law.

On Monday, Labrador told a Boise audience at a criminal justice reform conference at Concordia University School of Law that there is still hope for a breakthrough.

“Momentum is building for reform. This Congress alone, I’ve already met with President Obama twice. … This is actually one area that I think I can work with the president.”

That’s good news, though this year’s bill is a somewhat watered-down version. But it has cleared the House Judiciary Committee and still contains key reforms, such as giving judges more discretion to weigh information on a case-by-case basis before issuing a sentence.

“We only have 5 percent of the world’s population in the United States, and the U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” Labrador said. “We should not be proud of that.”

Mandatory sentencing laws have been a key contributor.

They were adopted in response to a dramatic increase in violent crime from 1960 to 1992. Since then, the violent-crime rate has dropped to pre-1970 levels, but nonviolent offenders, usually involved with drugs, have been swept up by laws originally designed to stem violence.

About half of inmates in federal lockups are drug offenders, and about 80 percent of them have no history of violence.

Last October, the federal Bureau of Prisons began releasing about 6,000 prisoners to meet a goal of reducing the number of incarcerated drug offenders by half. The U.S. Sentencing Commission made that possible by cutting drug sentences by an average of two years.

Locally, the Smart Justice movement has broad, bipartisan support from judges, attorneys and politicians. James McDevitt, a former U.S. attorney and the current head of the Spokane Police Department, was one of three leaders of the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission, which produced a report calling for reforms.

Critics may call this “coddling criminals,” but it’s actually a smarter way to spend tax dollars by diverting money to counseling and treatment in the hopes of ending the costly cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and reoffend.

Though generally optimistic, Labrador did say that the longer Congress delays action, the less likely it is to occur.

Examples of congressional Republicans and Democrats working together have been hard to come by. Let’s hope they break the logjam on this issue.

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