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Fri Aug 9, 2013, 12:06 AM

Democrats and Republicans agree: Reform Our Drug Laws


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.

Holder is on board with reforms, as Recursion posted here: http://www.democraticunderground.com/10023431740

Attorney General Eric Holder is rumored to be proposing major reforms to drug sentencing in the coming weeks, and if a Wednesday interview with NPR is any indication, the changes could signal a pivot from the aggressive policies embraced by the Justice Department.

"I think there are too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons," Holder said in the interview, turning from the department's highly criticized crackdown on drug law enforcement. As NPR noted, almost half of the people in federal prison are serving time for drug charges.

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," he continued. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

Holder hinted in the interview that the changes could include better prioritization of federal law enforcement and shortened sentences for minor drug offenses. According to NPR, Holder could announce his proposal as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Even with federal-level sentencing changes, states may also set penalties. No doubt the federal sentencing changes will help, but if you're in Louisiana, for instance, you can still be sent to prison for 20 years for a third conviction for simple possession of marijuana. And that was after they modified existing law to make it more lenient.

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