The Herald Bulletin

August 22, 2013

Editorial: Holder on right path for drug sentencing reform

The Herald Bulletin

---- — Stephanie Nodd was 23 years old in 1990 when she was charged in Alabama with conspiracy to sell crack cocaine. She was convicted and, despite it being her first offense, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Sharanda Jones was 32 years old in 1999 when she was charged in Texas with conspiracy to sell crack cocaine. She had a gun without a license and insisted through the legal process on pleading not guilty. Those aggravating circumstances helped land her a life-without-parole sentence. She had no prior convictions. Her incarceration, it's estimated, will cost taxpayers $1.2 million.

These cases were cited in a recent report by CNN, in which sources decried both the unfair sentencing practices for nonviolent, low-level drug convicts — and the costly impact of such sentences on the penal system.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently marked a turning point in our nation's long battle against drug trafficking and abuse. He directed federal prosecutors to stop charging low-level drug offenders with "draconian minimum sentences." Holder indicated that his directive was motivated, chiefly, by two factors: to relieve overcrowding in prisons and to give prosecutors more discretion to make drug offender sentencing better fit the level of the crime.

Holder's next step will be to collaborate with bipartisans in Congress to grant judges greater leeway in sentencing.

While dealing drugs is far from a victimless crime, minimum sentencing standards in force since the 1980s have often led to sentences that could be considered cruel and unusual. Witness the cases of Jones and Nodd. Nearly half of those incarcerated in federal facilities are there because of drug crimes.

Holder is on the right path here, and so is the state of Indiana. This year, legislators passed a bill that reduces the duration of sentences for low-level drug crimes, sending convicts not to prison but to community corrections and rehabilitation.

As Holder has noted, at least 17 states have taken measures in recent years to divert money originally intended for the construction of prison facilities and set it aside for rehabilitation services.

These steps are suggestive of progress toward a more enlightened approach to addressing the staggering problem of drug abuse in the United States. While illegally trafficking drugs will always be a crime, drug use is better viewed as an illness that needs treated, rather than a crime that deserves punishment.

In summary With his directive to federal prosecutors to stop imposing "draconian minimum" sentences for low-level drug offenders, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is on the right path.