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Commentary: Broad-based need for reform in federal sentencing

The Sentencing Reform Act passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago was enacted with a stated agenda that included the elimination of federal parole and the introduction of sentencing adjustments geared toward greater consistency.

In other words, and regarding that latter point, lawmakers wanted to ensure, for example, that a person convicted in Arkansas of a crime and a defendant in some other state convicted of the same criminal charge would receive identical, or closely similar, sentence outcomes.

Johanna E. Markind, an ex-attorney for the U.S. Parole Commission, writes in the Wall Street Journal of "unforeseen consequences" that have flowed from the 1984 legislation and created the strong need currently for major systemic reform in the nation's criminal justice system.

Denial of parole, for instance, has obviously brought about a corresponding rise in the federal prison population, which is now swollen beyond capacity.

The incarceration of high numbers of low-level and first-time offenders convicted on drug charges has also contributed largely to the bloated penitentiary system. Without the potential for early release of such offenders, an escape valve to relieve systemic pressures has been lost.

One result of that: spiraling budget needs. The federal Bureau of Prisons has requested nearly $7 billion for fiscal year 2014. Reportedly, that amount represents a staggering 3,153 percent increase from 1986, the year preceding parole's elimination.

Markind notes that a reform thrust is currently underway to reintroduce adjustments that will ameliorate some of the unanticipated effects resulting from the legislation passed in 1984. Those include government guidance to prosecutors to curb their charging of minor drug defendants on criminal counts carrying mandatory minimum sentences, as well as congressional debate and legislation focused on changes that will reduce cost outlays, lengthy sentences and overcrowded facilities.

Sentence reform and attendant discussion on the criminal justice system generally is a hot-button topic these days in the media and on Capitol Hill. We will keep readers timely apprised of material developments that occur in this important subject area.

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Time for Congress to fix its criminal code," Johanna E. Markind, Nov. 5, 2013

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