Prisons overcrowded, but no hurry to release those who don’t belong

Two recent cases in the news have us pondering again how the criminal justice system works.

First came the case of John McCullough, who remains in prison facing hearings even though the State’s Attorney acknowledges he is innocent. The judge presiding over the case explains, “There’s a process.”

Jesse Webster and McCullough

Jesse Webster (left) and John McCullough (right)

Then came President Obama’s commutation of the sentence of Jesse Webster, after Webster has spent the past 21 years in state prisons — 16 in maximum security — for a conviction of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. A striking fact: Both the judge who sentenced Webster, U.S. District Judge James Zagel, and the prosecutor had believed the sentence was too harsh. Both, however, had been bound by mandatory minimum sentencing laws that removed discretion.

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All of this comes, of course as state officials fret about the number of inmates locked up in state institutions, for a series of reasons: They don’t really get rehabilitated. Crowded prisons become more dangerous. And it costs as much as $25,000 per prisoner per year.

Maybe the cases of McCullough and Webster suggest a starting point: Doing better at releasing those prisoners who prosecutors agree don’t belong.