Norman O'Neal Brown, the lone Marylander among the 46 federal inmates to whom President Barack Obama granted clemency this week, was a drug dealer. He wasn't the sort who was sent to prison for a long term over mere possession of illegal drugs — he was convicted in 1993 as part of a loosely defined ring of criminals who brought substantial quantities of crack cocaine from Philadelphia to Maryland, and he was caught after trading some of it to an undercover federal agent for supposedly untappable, untraceable cell phones. Nor was he a first-time offender; he had been convicted a few years earlier on two counts of selling cocaine to an undercover agent.

Nonetheless, it's hard to find any coherent argument that his sentence of life in prison makes the least bit of sense. Not to discount the impact of the crack epidemic on American communities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but he likely would not have received such severe punishment if he had raped, assaulted or possibly even murdered someone. And he certainly would not have if he had been dealing any other kind of drug; thanks to misguided tough-on-crime laws in effect at the time, distribution of crack carried far more severe penalties in federal courts than dealing an equivalent amount of powdered cocaine. Surely 22 years in prison is punishment enough.

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Since Mr. Obama asked the Justice Department to recommend more commutations of inmates like Mr. Brown — those without convictions for serious violent crimes, who have served at least 10 years, who have records of good behavior and who would not have received such long sentences under current rules — the federal government has been inundated with more than 6,000 petitions. How many of them are deserving of relief is impossible to say, but we're betting that even at the president's accelerated pace — he has now commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined — he won't come close to righting even the obvious cases of injustice.

That's why the GOP reaction to Mr. Obama's efforts is so encouraging. A generation after Republican George H.W. Bush's campaign sunk Democrat Michael Dukakis' White House bid with an ad focused on his furlough of Willie Horton, the political currents have reversed. Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who is co-author of a criminal justice reform bill, called it as a publicity stunt falling far short of what's needed. And Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, quipped that the only remarkable thing about it was that President Obama was doing something the Constitution actually authorizes him to do. Charles Koch actually complained a month ago that the president wasn't granting clemency requests fast enough, and some Republican presidential candidates, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, have also championed the issue.

The same dynamic has played out on the state level. Republican governors in Ohio and Georgia have campaigned on criminal justice reform. In Maryland, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was much more open to clemency and commutation requests than the Democrats who preceded or followed him in office, and he is still speaking out on the issue, largely to conservative audiences. Maryland's new Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has indicated a desire to follow Mr. Ehrlich's lead, and his administration has already identified a dozen people who have served significant sentences who could be candidates for commutations or parole, along with nearly 300 who could be pardoned to erase relatively minor crimes from their records. All those cases will require more review and a final decision by the governor, but it's safe to say Mr. Hogan is proceeding much more quickly than Democratic former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who didn't approve his first commutation until he had been in office for more than five years.

At the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's national convention in Philadelphia Tuesday, Mr. Obama called for bipartisan legislation to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, and the biggest challenge may be deciding which bi-partisan effort moves forward. We have reached a fundamental turning point in our thinking about crime and punishment because the folly of our current approach has resonated across the ideological spectrum. Mr. Obama couched the issue in terms of social and racial justice but also cost effectiveness — the nation now spends $80 billion a year on incarceration. Whatever motivation carries the day, it is clear that the era of big incarceration is over.

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