It's been over 40 years since President Nixon declared war on drugs and more than a quarter-century since Congress first enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, leading to a ballooning U.S. prison population. We, the land of the free and the home of the brave, have become the world's biggest jailer. In the light of Uruguay and New Zealand's recent efforts toward relaxing their drug laws, the time seems right for the United States to do some reform of its own. Specifically, the United States should reform its mandatory minimum sentencing policies for non-violent drug offenders.
The policy arguments are well known and indisputable: these laws disproportionately impact minorities, overcrowd our prison system, hamstring our judges, don't deter crime, and are a waste of money. These arguments have been around for decades. What makes this time different — because in Washington, policy is often trumped by politics — is the surprising amount of bipartisan consensus around this issue. Republican and Democrats both agree: now is the time to reform our drug sentencing laws.
Right now there are two bills in the Congress that would go a long way toward reforming our drug sentencing laws. Last week, Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would allow judges more of the leeway that they have asked for to sentence criminals below the mandatory minimum sentence. The bill would also lower the mandatory minimum sentences for various drug crimes. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and by Congressmen Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), would go even further, eliminating mandatory sentences for some non-drug crimes. Either bill would be a positive step towards creating more-just sentencing laws by returning discretion to judges.
Support for reform has been building for some time. One precedent to look at is the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in minimum sentences between powder cocaine and crack cocaine from 100-1 down to 18-1. That bill was supported by several influential House Republicans such as James Sensenbrenner (Wisc.), Paul Ryan (Wisc.), former Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), and even Todd Akin (formerly R-Mo.). That act proved that not only can drug reform be bipartisan, it can also attract strong conservative support.
The executive branch is also on board with reform. In an interview with National Public Radio today, Attorney General Eric Holder signaled a willingness to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing laws and, in some cases, get rid of them altogether. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences [of the War on Drugs]", Holder says. "There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color." The Department of Justice currently has a group of lawyers working behind the scenes on several proposals Holder will present as early as next week. One proposal would involve Holder directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain low-level drug crimes.
Broad support exists outside government as well. Over 50 prosecutors and judges recently wrote Congress to urge reform. Senator Durbin's website lists over a dozen varied supporters of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including the ACLU, the American Bar Association, and conservative icon Grover Norquist. Even the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has just announced its support for the Justice Safety Valve Act, which is all the more important because they were longtime supporters of mandatory minimums.
These groups have come together for a variety of reasons: Conservatives are outraged by the money we are wasting, and liberals are angered by the institutional racism of the system. By supporting doing away with these arbitrary, vindictive minimums, Republicans could potentially make inroads among young people and minorities, among whom our current drug laws are highly unpopular.
Whatever their reasons, we should seize this opportunity before the politics change. It would be good for the country and is long overdue.