President Obama took on one of the nation’s long festering and most neglected problems last week when he visited a medium-security federal prison in Oklahoma to highlight the enormous moral and financial cost of excessive sentences for nonviolent offenders.
The dramatic gesture — Mr. Obama became the first American president to step into a federal prison — was part of an effort by the nation’s top law enforcement officer to spark a movement to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system.
The idea has drawn increasing bipartisan support because the failings of the current system have become painfully evident. It cannot be sustained in terms of results, costs, or the damage inflicted on countless Americans who have drawn inexcusably long prison sentences for non-violent offenses.
“There but for the grace of God,” the president told reporters somberly after walking the prison hallways and peering into some of the cells. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made.”
He was referring to his own experience as a young man, when he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. And as a black man, he knows he faced increased odds of winding up in prison for a minor offense. To further dramatize his point, Mr. Obama one day earlier had commuted the sentences of 46 people (including 22 Floridians), most of whom were serving 20 years or more for nonviolent drug offenses.
To be clear, no one is talking about leniency for violent criminals. “Murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins,” Mr. Obama said, belong behind bars. Tougher prosecutors and stiff sentences have contributed to a significant decline in crime across the nation.
But handing out long sentences to nonviolent offenders in both federal and state courts serves no remedial purpose and delivers unnecessary costs to the taxpayers. Yes, parole violators and low-level drug dealers should pay a price, but not 20 years or a life sentence.
The problem is national in scope, but affects every state. Florida spends $2.1 billion on 100,000 inmates in state prisons because tough sentencing laws have caused the prison population to explode, even as the crime rate plunged to a 40-year low.
The senselessness of this approach may be a big reason that Florida Tax Watch, a nonpartisan research organization that generally supports conservative policies, backs sentencing reform. In a recent report, it called on the state Legislature to “revisit all nonviolent drug sentencing and reduce the mandatory minimums for these offenses.”
To its credit, the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2014 reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders charged with possession of oxycodone and hydrocodone, but it needs to go further by revisiting all nonviolent drug sentences and reducing harsh mandatory minimums for those offenses.
Congress, as well, seems to be taking up the cause. Last week, a welcome new proposal called the SAFE Justice Act that, among other provisions, would eliminate mandatory-minimums for low-level drug crimes, won the support of House Speaker John Boehner and is picking up bipartisan support.
Bipartisan opportunities for significant legislation come along too infrequently these days. Congress should waste no time in fixing the federal sentencing system.