THUMBS UP to a decision last week by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that opens the way for reduced sentences for 46,000 federal drug offenders.

The commission already had lightened sentences for future offenses. Pending congressional approval, last week’s decision will make that move retroactive, making nearly half of the inmates in federal prison on drug convictions eligible for an average reduction of about 25 months.

The decision is the latest rebuke to decades of harmful drug policies that have filled jails and ruined lives but have not slowed the flow of illegal drugs or made neighborhoods safer.

States have led the way in this effort, by reducing sentences and prioritizing treatment and rehabilitation over draconian punishments that permanently scar the offender’s record.

The federal system has lagged behind, however. According to the commission, the federal Bureau of Prisons is almost 40 percent over capacity, with half of all its inmates convicted of a drug crime.

Between 1980 and 2008, the number of people behind bars increased by a factor of four. The United States leads the world in incarceration rate, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of its population.

The policies have had a unbalanced impact on African-Americans, who are sent to prison on drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. In 2010, Congress removed the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, which was shown to unfairly target African-Americans. With last week’s decision, took another step toward a saner justice system.

THUMBS UP to the new rail safety standards unveiled this week by the federal Transportation Department.

The new rules would phase out over two years the older crude oil-carrying rail cars, which are more susceptible to spills than newer cars. They also call for improved braking systems, lower speeds and better notification for communities through which flammable liquids are carried by rail.

Each of the new standards comes with significant costs. Most of those costs, however, are offset by the savings incurred as the number of crashes and spills is reduced.

It bears watching, however, where the debate over rail standards goes from here. Tighter rules have been opposed by rail and oil companies, no small matter when considering the political power bought by the incredible increase in domestic oil production and shipping in the last few years.

THUMBS UP to Sienna Mazone, the Dresden 12-year-old who was flown to the White House for a state dinner with the first lady on the strength of a healthy recipe the preteen concocted.

Sienna’s case is certainly an extraordinary one. But her enthusiasm for food she prepares herself shows how kids can be drawn to healthy meals when they have some say in the matter.

As schools deal with stricter standards for healthy meals, they can learn from Sienna, who already is passing on her love of healthy food through cooking classes at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.


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