6,000 inmates are about to be released from prison – and that’s a good thing

The Observer editorial board

Critics say the United States spends far too much keeping low-level offenders behind bars.
Critics say the United States spends far too much keeping low-level offenders behind bars. Charlotteobserver.com

Last week, conservative Republican senators including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas joined liberals such as Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois in proposing a dramatic overhaul of federal prison sentences.

Given our dysfunctional, hyper-partisan political environment, commentators drenched the bipartisan effort with praise. “A bold effort to recast two decades of criminal justice policy,” the New York Times called it. Unfortunately, they’ve only proposed a new law; they haven’t passed one. There’s still a chance that it will go where all sensible ideas in D.C. go these days – nowhere.

We hope not. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would roll back a number of the overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences Congress put in place during the ill-conceived “War on Drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s. Many of those stiff sentences landed on non-violent drug offenders.

To be sure, most American inmates are held in state prisons, not federal ones. Still, successful reform at the federal level could help more states see that tougher sentences don’t make us safer. North Carolina has already shown the way on this with its 2011 sentencing reform law. The state has since closed 10 prisons and saved some $560 million with no increase in crime.

And yet, even with conservative power-brokers such as billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch pushing for reform, the effort could fall short.

With the Senate moving toward tackling the bipartisan reform bill, a related development hit the front pages of Wednesday’s newspapers – the fact that the Justice Department is preparing later this month to start releasing about 6,000 inmates from prison early. It will do so under changes set in motion more than a year ago by the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges.

A report from the nonpartisan Marshall Project, which tracks criminal justice news, speculated that career federal prosecutors leaked word of the releases hoping to spark a conservative backlash. With crime rates ticking upward, such fears would be easy to stoke.

That would be a shame. We urge North Carolina’s senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, to support the bill, and recommend the state’s representatives in the House get behind similar legislation before that chamber.

The United States has the world’s highest prison population rate, surpassing that of Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations we tend to lecture about human rights issues.

This might be Washington’s best chance to bring sensible, bipartisan change on a major social issue.

Our representatives should seize it.