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EDITORIAL: Sentencing reforms possible when politicos don’t criminalize one another

EDITORIAL: Sentencing reforms possible when politicos don’t criminalize one another

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This newspaper has regularly lambasted Washington politicians for not working together to address problems facing our nation, so it’s only right we give credit when lawmakers from both sides of the aisle roll up their sleeves and work together in meaningful ways — that is, ways that go beyond naming a post office in some congressman’s district.

So who could have predicted we’d see such a thing during a period when Republicans are at one another’s throat over whether to shut down the government or work with Democrats?

Last week U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican leader and former judge in Texas, joined Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Among other things, it reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders (while stiffening other sentences for violent crimes). It allows federal prisoners to reduce the time they serve through pivotal recidivism programs.

The bill scuttles the so-called “three strikes” law that requires mandatory life sentences without parole for a third drug charge; curbs use of solitary confinement on young federal prisoners; and mandates classifying of all federal prisoners to better determine if they’re good candidates for recidivism programs.

How did all this happen? Republicans are legitimately concerned about the high cost of long-term incarceration for charges society regards as serious but no longer justification for throwing away the proverbial key; Democrats are justifiably concerned about racial overtones in the disparity of sentencing for certain crimes. It didn’t hurt that the reforms were pressed hard by both the politically powerful Koch brothers as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Cornyn, the Senate’s majority whip, has special reason for pride in the bill’s section providing for more aggressive recidivism programs (including job-training, drug rehabilitation and even faith-based programs). He and Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse incorporated reforms successfully implemented by the state of Texas in ways that Cornyn says reduced crime rates, rehabilitated prisoners and saved taxpayer dollars: “This is a great way for the federal government to learn from successful experiments at the state level, which I think is the way things ought to occur, rather than have the federal government experiment nationwide with programs that are less than successful.”

Well done, senators. Now can House members keep pace with new bipartisan feats of consequence? We’ll see.

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