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Seeking lasting criminal justice reform at the federal level

Now in his final year in office, President Obama has increased his focus on criminal justice reform. Specifically, he continues to issue pardons and commutations to large groups of non-violent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences in federal prison.

Earlier this month, the president commuted the sentences of 58 offenders. In March, 61 people had their sentences commuted. And last December, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 95 non-violent drug offenders. Many of the individuals seeking commuted sentences were victims of mandatory minimums and the wide sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine.

Although these commutations are appropriate, the president's actions are merely treating the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. That can only be done with the help of Congress.

There appears to be bipartisan support for a bill called The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. If passed, the bill would:

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses
  • Give judges greater discretion to issue sentences shorter than those required by mandatory minimums
  • Expand early release options and prison programming

Despite bipartisan support, these bills could be held up indefinitely by Congressional leaders. Hopefully, the momentum on these reforms is strong enough to overpower the constant gridlock that has come to define Congress in recent years.

America's war on drugs has arguably done far more harm than good. The devastation caused by these draconian laws can be seen in Wisconsin and across the nation. We must hope that future presidents will continue to make criminal justice reform a high priority.

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