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Alice Johnson is breathing free air today, thanks to a presidential commutation of her life sentence for a non-violent drug offense.

In unlocking her cell door, President Donald Trump cited the 63-year-old great-grandmother’s exemplary behavior during 21 years in federal prisons, and said he believes in second chances.

That’s hopeful news for the more than 3,000 other non-violent offenders in the United States who are currently condemned to die behind bars due to ill-conceived tough-on-crime laws designed to help America win the war on drugs, but instead crowded its prisons with inmates who might have been rehabilitated.

Without pardons or commutations, they will remain a burden on taxpayers and a loss to society for the rest of their lives.

The American Civil Liberties Union says three-quarters of those non-violent lifers are in federal prisons. Most of their crimes involved the drug trade. And a majority of them are African-American and Hispanic.

Trump should extend to those inmates languishing in the federal prison system the same second chance he has granted Johnson.

There’s growing awareness among Republicans and conservatives that warehousing inmates for extraordinarily long sentences does little to protect the public and plays no role in the correction of anti-social behavior. But it does bust public budgets.

Gov. Rick Snyder has implemented and proposed a number of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population, and has been joined by governors from both parties nationwide. State Sen. John Proos, a Republican from Grand Rapids, is pushing reforms that would create more alternatives to prison, and assure that those convicts who are sentenced to prison terms get the support and training they need to lead productive lives when they’re released. Last fall, a Republican controlled state Legislature ended Michigan's mandatory life sentences for certain drug offences.

So Trump doesn’t have to fear being labeled soft on crime by his base for releasing non-violent prisoners. It’s a fiscally responsible move, as well as a humane one.

Johnson’s case is fairly typical.  

She had served 21 years of a life sentence for cocaine trafficking. While in prison, she kept out of trouble, and took advantage of programs to improve herself.

Yet her commutation request to President Barack Obama was denied three times because federal prosecutors said she was once connected to a drug cartel that engaged in violence.

That was a long time ago. Johnson is clearly a different person today than she was when she was engaged in criminal activity.

That’s true of many, if not most of the non-violent offenders currently doing long, hard time.

Prisons should not serve simply to protect the public and punish the criminal. They should also exist to reform and rehabilitate.

A prisoner who has made the commitment to change his or her life, as Johnson did, should have a shot at redemption.

There are many more Alice Johnsons waiting for that second chance. Trump should give it to them. 

 

 

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