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Opinion

Non-violent offenders are unfairly punished

The sentences for drug-related offenses are excessive and costly

A mandatory double-life term without the possibility of parole. This sounds like a sentence fit for only the most vile, irredeemable criminal. Serial killers, rapists, pedophiles and unconscionable abusers — the worst of the worst. Yet, two decades ago, a 23-year-old man received that sentence for mailing a letter containing LSD.

He wasn’t a drug lord, an upper-ranking cartel member or a slime-ball selling to kids, but a 23-year-old man who liked going to Grateful Dead concerts. Timothy Tyler was prosecuted in 1993 for mailing five grams of LSD to a friend who was a government informant. Tyler had two prior drug offenses that only resulted in probation, but the third strike landed him a 10-year mandatory sentencing hearing.

Tyler admittedly wasn’t a stable person. He sold his possessions to follow the Grateful Dead around the country, hopelessly obsessed with and dependent upon his “Deadhead” lifestyle as an escape from an abusive upbringing. Despite this, he was by all accounts from family and friends, a nice, harmless, slightly reckless guy — a description that fits a lot of us.

So, at 23, Timothy Tyler was sentenced to life without parole and now 20 years later, he remains behind bars with no chance of seeing the outside world. It’s estimated that over $25,000 per year is spent keeping Tyler in jail, around half a million dollars total for his incarceration thus far. This is money that could be put toward psychological rehabilitation programs to help drug offenders stay out when they get out of jail. Did Tyler do more wrong than Bernie Madoff? Should a $50 million crime and a $3,000 crime share similar sentences? I don’t think so, yet as Tyler himself has said, “A man that raped his daughter got probation. A man who killed people with his car, got probation…”

Recently, Tyler’s story has gotten attention by the news media due to a petition started by his sister on Change.org, but there are many other non-violent inmates serving terms that far exceed their crimes. Tyler is extremely lucky that there’s an effort to grant him clemency from prison. He’s lucky that people even know who he is.

Our billion-dollar prison industry keeps 200,000 violent offenders away from us. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world and the war on drugs in the 1980s failed in combating crack cocaine. Although these are the government’s mistakes, it hasn’t been government officials serving time, but poor communities and broken homes.

There is a renewed effort by Attorney General Eric Holder to review cases similar to Tyler’s. This effort could result in reduced sentences for 2,000 inmates associated with petty drug crimes. These are inmates who have lost their worth as humans because of their inability to give back to society.

On a college campus, many of us could be Tyler: students raised by hardworking families from the inner city or upstate who can barely afford to provide for college expenses. That’s reality. High-functioning, smart students who are intimate with struggle take part in a drug culture in order to make ends meet.

And learning from our own mistakes quickly isn’t something that society has ever been good at. We have a dating, romance and sex advice industry thriving on our repeated mistakes and poor choices. College culture glorifies our experimentation and rule breaking. If you’ve broken more than three laws here or made a regrettable but lustful State Street decision by the age of 23, you can relate to Tyler.

I’m not just advocating for a sensible drug policy, but sensible policies across all issue areas. We need thoughtful revisions to outdated laws for a world that is rapidly outpacing our ability to contemplate. As we continue to advance human rights, let’s not forget individual human lives and those that might still offer value to society.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.