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Focus on drug crimes: pardons, calls for sentencing reforms

California prisons, like others throughout the country, are swollen by inmate populations comprising persons convicted of drug crimes. Many of those prisoners are first-time nonviolent offenders.

Notwithstanding that status, the terms handed down to such defendants can be sobering indeed. In fact, high numbers of prisoners across the United States are serving decades-long and sometimes life sentences for drug offenses, in both state and federal penitentiaries.

Such outcomes stem from harsh sentencing requirements fashioned decades ago, pursuant to which certain offenses were pegged to so-called mandatory minimum prison terms.

The direct result of that policy has been a dramatic uptick in the number of incarcerated persons in the United States, especially inmates convicted on drug charges.

Some of their stories are dramatic indeed. One notable case featured on the investigative news show Frontline chronicles the story of a young man sentenced to three life terms 20 years ago on cocaine-related charges. He was a first-time offender who neither purchased nor sold the drug. Rather, his conviction was based on conspiracy to possess and distribute.

The Obama administration has been strongly focused on such stories and has pushed hard to bring about sentencing reform in drug cases. Recent directives from the United States Department of Justice instruct federal prosecutors to abstain from seeking mandatory minimum sentences in lower-level drug cases, and the administration is calling for new legislative efforts to bring about change.

Among other things, the president has asked that Congress make the Fair Sentencing Act -- legislation passed in 2010 to remedy some of the harshness of earlier law -- retroactive, so that offenders currently serving mandatory terms can apply for relief under the newer law.

And just last week, the president commuted the prison sentences of eight persons convicted of drug offenses, including the term of the inmate whose story was featured on Frontline.

In doing so, the president called the commutations “an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.”

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Obama commutes sentences of 8 crack cocaine offenders," Timothy M. Phelps, Dec. 19, 2013

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