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Andrea Lyon Headshot

Sensible Drug Sentencing Reform

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I have written before about the prison industrial complex and the failed war on drugs. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, but rather to applaud the acknowledgement this week by the bipartisan United States Sentencing Commission that our tough drug laws, putting people in prison for decades for non-violent drug offenses, have cost all of us dearly and must be revised.

By costs I do not mean just financial -- although those are substantial. I also mean the cost to the individuals who are sentenced for long periods of time, to their families and to the neighborhoods decimated by mass incarceration.

To that end, I wish to applaud the Clemency Project 2014. It is a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union , Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations. The Project was launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they'd been sentenced today. Clemency Project 2014 members will collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen and write petitions for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general on April 23. Well-known federal defender Cynthia Roseberry will oversee and ensure the smooth and efficient operation of the project, including inmate intake, attorney training and allocation, and resource provision. She is reaching out to many places (including Valparaiso University Law School) for help in this important project.

As long as there have been societies, use of drugs and alcohol have been a part of them. Abuse of both drugs and alcohol is endemic, but could be better controlled were we to start treating drug and alcohol abuse in the same way; that is a public health problem that needs treatment, rather than only as a criminal law problem.

It appears that there is not the political will to make such sweeping change, but the efforts that states have made to defer prosecutions, to offer treatment alternatives, and to move towards reintegration of offenders into society all augur well for more sensible responses to illegal drugs. So too, has the Sentencing Commission's recommendations.

We have limited resources, and there are so many crying needs for them; mental health treatment, public schools and infrastructure just to name a few. Congress has refused to act on the sensible reforms needed, so the Sentencing Commission has. As long as Congress does not reject the Commission's work by November 1, 2014, it will stand and begin the process of redress to those affected by the out-of-proportion sentencing that has cost us all so dearly.