Time served: The Justice Department offers a fresh start

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As part of a continuing reform of the nation’s drug laws, Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the Justice Department is expanding a program that will allow President Barack Obama to consider clemency requests from an expanded pool of nonviolent drug offenders who were previously ineligible because of sentencing guidelines.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said, under the new rules, clemency might be considered for nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years in prison and who would have received significantly less time if sentenced under today’s more lenient terms.

These overdue changes reflect Mr. Obama’s desire to shrink the federal prison population now clogged with nonviolent drug offenders. 

It’s hard to say how many inmates might be released under the new policy, but some experts believe it might be in the hundreds — not enough to make a dent in the roster of 216,000 federal inmates.

Because of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses faced far more years behind bars than judges and even many prosecutors would have preferred. Such sentences contribute to the perception that justice is arbitrary.

The cost to taxpayers of holding nonviolent drug offenders for so many years has been steep, but the cost of tolerating such a flawed system for so long has been steeper.

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