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In our opinion: Chaffetz seeks way to reduce federal prison sentences

Published: Wednesday, June 5 2013 9:49 a.m. MDT

Without any change, the federal Bureau of Prisons expects to have added another 11,500 inmates by the end of this fiscal year. The system currently is 38 percent above its rated capacity, with overcrowding threatening the safety of inmates and the public.

David Goldman, Associated Press

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The federal justice system is far more rigid than state systems. No federal board of pardons exists. If you are sentenced to federal prison, you will either serve your full sentence or die trying.

As a result, inequities arise, and the costs of warehousing federal prisoners becomes increasingly higher as prison capacities are strained. The poster boy for this problem is Utah's Weldon Angelos, who as a young man was convicted in 2004 of selling a small amount of marijuana while carrying a gun. Federal Judge Paul Cassell verbally protested the fact he was required by law to sentence Angelos to 55 years in prison — a sentence longer than for rape or second-degree murder — but he had no choice.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, hopes to introduce a little more equity into the system. He is sponsoring a bill that would require the government to evaluate each federal prisoner as either a high, moderate or low risk to become a repeat offender. Inmates would be given credits for good behavior, participating in rehabilitation programs, holding a job, participating in educational classes and becoming a part of faith-based services or courses. All of these could add up to less time in prison and more freedom through home confinement or other alternatives.

Chaffetz told us several states, especially Texas, have modeled similar programs with great success. Texas, he said, is closing a prison because of the savings. This is notable because the number of state prisoners in Texas is similar to the 217,000 who currently reside in federal prisons.

The bill is significant, not least because Chaffetz has the reputation of a hard-line conservative. That end of the political spectrum tends to want to be as tough on criminals as possible, and there is evidence that tough enforcement has at least helped to reduce crime rates in much of the nation. But in getting tough on crime, politicians have at times abandoned sound public policy in favor of gimmicks such as "three strikes you're out" laws, which automatically sentence third-time felons to life in prison, and minimum mandatory sentences, which are more relevant on the federal level.

The bill would be an important step toward introducing some sanity in the federal prison system, and its connection to Chaffetz could help it bridge divides between liberals and conservatives. We wish it would go further and eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences, but that would render it politically impassable.

Most importantly, the bill would introduce an incentive system that would give prisoners a reason to seek improvement behind bars. Only the most violent offenders, as well as terrorists, illegal aliens and those convicted of sex crimes against minors, would be ineligible. As Chaffetz notes, nearly all federal prisoners one day will be released back into society. Why not make more of an effort to make sure they can become positive contributors?

Without any change, the federal Bureau of Prisons expects to have added another 11,500 inmates by the end of this fiscal year. The system currently is 38 percent above its rated capacity, with overcrowding threatening the safety of inmates and the public.

The nation can take a tough line against crime without irrationally punishing offenders. The details of exactly how Chaffetz' plan would be implemented are of overriding importance, of course, and little is known right now about those. The bill would direct the attorney general's office to develop the risk-assessment plan.

But this equitable cost-saving idea is long overdue.

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