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For nearly 40 years, this nation has engaged in a costly and futile war on drugs, and a race to incarcerate that has quadrupled the nation’s prison population to more than 2 million inmates. These policies, costing tens of billions of dollars a year, have yielded no demonstrated decrease in drug use or crime.
So recent action by the Senate Judiciary Committee is hopeful, signaling that U.S. sentencing policies are finally poised to shift from tough to smart, leading to a more-ethical, leaner, and more-effective criminal justice system.
Last month, committee members approved a plan, introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) that would cut most mandatory drug sentences for nonviolent offenders in half. It would also make retroactive a law that narrowed the differences between sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine, and give judges more discretion in sentencing.
In 2010, Congress passed a bill that reduced the discriminatory disparity in sentencing between crack and powder — as much as 100 times harsher for crack — that disproportionately affected minority communities. Now Congress must make these reductions retroactive.
The law was as unreasonable before 2010 as it is today. A just sentence should not depend on when a crime was committed.
Harsh federal sentencing guidelines enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have resulted in unreasonably long sentences that judges themselves have objected to. Mandatory minimum sentences are applied in 15,000 drug sentences a year. Sensible sentencing changes would save taxpayers billions of dollars each year.
Significantly, the reforms approved by the Judiciary Committee have the backing of prominent Republicans, including Tea Party favorites such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, giving them an excellent chance of clearing the full Senate. Support from conservative Republicans might stem from libertarian concerns about big government or fiscal objections to the high costs of incarceration. Those are concerns all Americans should share.
But advancing human rights is an equally good reason to support these changes. Senator Lee has said that as an assistant U.S. attorney, he saw how minor drug offenses could lead to lengthy sentences that destroyed families.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has suggested it would use executive clemency powers to reduce excessive sentences. Last December, President Obama commuted the prison terms of eight crack-cocaine offenders, including six who had been serving mandatory life sentences.
Such efforts by the President, while laudatory, are long overdue. A bipartisan movement toward smart criminal justice reforms is encouraging, after decades of failed and costly sentencing policies.