Our view: Fix ‘out of whack' prison sen­tences

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS | OPINION -

At 26, Chris Young was headed to prison for life — con­victed on a crack co­caine charge, his third drug-re­lated offense.

The sen­tence also marked a turn­ing point for the judge in the case. Three years af­ter Kevin Sharp handed down what he called an “out of whack” pun­ish­ment, he aban­doned the bench, dis­traught over manda­tory min­i­mums that gave him no lee­way at sen­tenc­ing.

“Each de­fen­dant is sup­posed to be treated as an in­di­vid­ual,” the judge said dur­ing Young’s hear­ing. “I don’t think that’s hap­pen­ing here.”

In 2014, Sharp didn’t have the power to save a non­vi­o­lent offen­der like Young from a life­time in prison. To­day Congress does. A mea­sure known as the FIRST STEP Act, passed by the House in May but stalled in the Se­nate, has strong bi­par­ti­san sup­port that could make it that rare ex­am­ple of Congress com­ing to­gether to do the right thing.

Last month, mem­bers of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee — in­clud­ing Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. — agreed on a com­pro­mise that would make sen­tenc­ing more flex­i­ble and prison treat­ment more hu­mane.

Preg­nant in­mates would no longer be shack­led; pris­on­ers would be housed closer to their fam­i­lies; judges would get more lee­way to avoid manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences; some in­mates locked up on crack co­caine charges could pe­ti­tion for lighter sen­tences; and a third strike would no longer mean life in prison.

The mea­sure would also go a long way to­ward help­ing in­mates suc­cess­fully re-enter so­ci­ety, an ur­gent task in a na­tion where nearly 50 per­cent of fed­eral offen­ders re­turn to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem within eight years.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has en­dorsed the act, as have the Koch broth­ers on the right and the ACLU on the left. But Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., and a hand­ful of con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans are block­ing progress.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton, R-Ark., has been the most vo­cal critic. In a USA TO­DAY col­umn, he called the leg­is­la­tion “a mis­guided effort to let se­ri­ous felons out of prison,” and he has ex­pressed con­cern that sex­ual preda­tors could use the bill to their ad­van­tage.

Ac­tivists on the left, mean­while, ar­gue that the bill doesn’t go far enough to sig­nificantly im­prove con­di­tions for in­mates, and that the risk as­sess­ments might not give pris­on­ers a fair shake.

Much of the crit­i­cism on both sides is ei­ther highly ex­ag­ger­ated or un­founded.

Un­der the Se­nate bill, in­mates who’ve com­mit­ted crimes against chil­dren, in­clud­ing sex-re­lated crimes, wouldn’t be el­i­gi­ble for early re­lease. Risk as­sess­ments, ac­cord­ing to the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, would help en­sure that vi­o­lent crim­i­nals stay be­hind bars.

The Se­nate pro­posal rep­re­sents the most re­al­is­tic chance in years to im­prove the na­tion’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Repub­li­cans and Democrats agree that the sys­tem needs an over­haul. Let the Se­nate vote. Peo­ple like Chris Young de­serve bet­ter.

DAVE MARTIN/AP

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