Four NFL players, including Doug Baldwin, offered evidence-based thoughts on the costs associated with over-imprisonment in the U.S. and how Trump could pardon many elderly, nonviolent drug offenders.

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In a New York Times Op-Ed published in June, several NFL players, including Doug Baldwin, responded to President Donald Trump’s invitation to provide him names of federal prisoners “unfairly treated by the justice system” and, if he agreed, he would pardon them.

Seahawks’ wide receiver Doug Baldwin (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Seahawks’ wide receiver Doug Baldwin (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

The players offered evidence-based thoughts on the overwhelming breadth of problems associated with over-imprisonment and suggested that the president consider issuing a blanket pardon for nonviolent, aging — over 60 — drug offenders serving excessive sentences.

The players observed that costs associated with imprisonment of the elderly are exorbitant and release would “pose little to no risk to society.” These observations are true. Costs associated with caring for elderly prisoners are escalating rapidly, a fact easily verified through data provided by the Bureau of Prisons. Further, basic research proves that the recidivism rate plunges after age 60 and is virtually nonexistent by age 70. Moreover, the players’ reasoned proposal does not suggest that criminal cases involving the use of guns should be pardon material.

In his June 29 column, Seattle Times sports writer Matt Calkins labeled the suggestion of the players “ignorant and dangerous,” citing as proof the unsupported claim of a prosecutor that “drug offenders are often murderers.” Simply put, the prosecutor’s assertion is false.

Readily available reports published by the Department of Justice show that the vast majority of federal drug offenders are nonviolent, as evidenced by the data, which reveals that 76 percent of federal drug defendants did not possess a weapon, and of those who did possess weapons, 25 percent proved that the weapon played no role in the offense. Only 18 percent of federal drug defendants were found to possess a weapon that could possibly have had any connection with the underlying drug offense, and fewer yet involved the actual use of a gun or other weapon.

Calkins goes on to suggest that the players might, nevertheless, compile a list of prisoners deserving of pardons and present the list to the president to see if he is bluffing. This idea is easier said than done.

In 2014, the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder initiated a project to, in essence, accomplish what the NFL players suggest in The New York Times Op-Ed — identify nonviolent, over-punished drug offenders who have served at least 10 years of their sentences — for possible commutation or pardon by President Barack Obama.

This proved to be an ambitious project. Some 24,000 federal prisoners applied for relief, and volunteer lawyers and law students spent many tens of thousands of hours screening applications for eligibility. By the time Obama’s term in office expired, he had granted nearly 1,700 commutations, but almost 8,000 petitions were left unreviewed.

The scope and unfinished business of the 2014 clemency project underscores the legitimacy of the NFL players’ proposal and the continuing need for the sort of action they suggest. The players’ recommendation that pardons be limited to the elderly was brilliant. In part, the work of the 2014 clemency project was incomplete because of the broad range of factors required to be considered when reviewing petitions.

The players’ proposal offers a bright line for determining eligibility for commutation. Aging, nonviolent drug offenders would be released to live out their days at home with friends and family, sharing lessons learned while saving taxpayers millions of dollars. The NFL players offer a sensible and safe step in addressing problems associated with over-imprisonment.