The U.S. Sentencing Commission sets the parameters federal judges are obliged to follow in sentencing convicted felons. It has long been, in effect, the hanging judge of the federal criminal justice system, backing long, inflexible sentences and making judicial discretion an oxymoron.

 

But, surprise, last year the commission defied the Bush administration by reducing crack-cocaine sentences to reflect those for powder cocaine, easing a disparity that was a major source of the wildly disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans. What’s more, it boldly applied the new standard retroactively.

And now the commission is studying possible sentencing alternatives to imprisonment, a move toward making recommendations to Congress.

About time. We have become the world’s champion jailer, imprisoning a far higher percentage of our people than any other industrialized nation, as if Americans were somehow a uniquely criminal people.

The national prison population is nearing 2.5 million, with some 200,000 of those in federal lock-ups. Another five million are under criminal-justice control - probation, parole and so on.

The roots of this ugly flowering are in the law-and-order politics that started in the 1970s and lasted into the ‘90s.

Candidates tangled in a long bidding war to see who could propose the most draconian sentences for the most offenses. Even legislators who knew better went along with the frenzy for fear of being ripped by opponents in the next election as soft-on-crime saps. The fad for mandatory minimum sentences rewrote federal and state criminal codes.

The fad, though faded, continues. Every congressional session and state legislative season sees legislation proposed for more mandatory sentences - the grandstanding politician’s shortcut to the six-o’clock news after any high profile crime.

All this law-and-order is killing us.

It costs an average $24,000 a year to maintain an inmate. The states are spending $44 billion annually on corrections. Prisons are one of the fastest rising costs in state budgets.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Taxpayers, qualified offenders, the public in general - all can get a better deal.

Specialized drug courts, for example, can direct first-time, non-violent offenders into supervised treatment programs for a fraction of prison costs, into the bargain often allowing the offender to continue working and thus keeping families out of welfare.

Offenders who successfully complete various alternative programs are less likely than imprisoned offenders to commit subsequent crimes and are better able to maintain or form families and find work that can support them.

If the Sentencing Commission does go forward with sensible new recommendations, it will face resistance in Congress and, most regrettably, in the Justice Department, where thinking about such matters has of late rarely ventured beyond Serves ‘Em Right. Perhaps a counterbalance can be found in a public open to options that could knock billions off its prison tax bill.

Yes, there are bad men and women who must be locked away for years, a few even for life. That’s especially so of violent criminals and repeat felons. Even so, we used to operate, albeit approximately, along the lines of letting the punishment fit the crime.

Our increasing resort to prison-only as the crime-fighting tool of choice has made punishment too often a crime itself.