Today in an op-ed for the Washington Times, Senator Rand Paul openly criticized the current state of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Senator Paul noted that he is proposing legislation which would allow judges to disregard the restrictions imposed by mandatory minimum sentences on a case-by-case basis. In particular, Senator Paul stated the following:
"When a crime is committed, it should fall to the local prosecutor, judge and jury to determine the guilt or innocence, as well as determine the just punishment for the crime. In the current system of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing, the authority is taken away from the jury and judge, and given by the legislature to the executive. Prosecutors already have tremendous power because they collect the evidence and choose which crimes to charge. If a mandatory penalty is attached to that crime, the prosecutor then exerts much influence over the entire procedure, including the sentence...
In the last 30 years, the number of federal inmates has increased from 25,000 to nearly 219,000. That is nearly a 10-fold increase in federal prisoners, each of whom cost the taxpayers $29,027 a year to incarcerate. The federal prison budget has doubled in 10 years to more than $6 billion.
Half of the people sentenced to federal prison are drug offenders. Some are simply drug addicts, who would be better served in a treatment facility. Most are nonviolent and should be punished in ways that do not require spending decades in a federal prison, with meals and health care provided by the taxpayers."
Senator Paul's proposal is the sort of rational, headline-vulnerable legislation that is becoming an endangered species in Washington. However, Senator Paul is not the first public figure to call for a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. In fact, Senator Paul's is picking up the flag raised by Judge John Gleeson, a former prosecutor himself, last spring in United States v. Dossie. In Dossie, Judge Gleeson sharply criticized the mandatory minimums as harsh, inefficient, and overly restrictive on judges. Judge Gleeson wrote the following:
"This case illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences. In the substantial percentage of cases in which they apply, they produce a sentencing regime that is worse than the one the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was enacted to replace. They make opaque what that law was intended to make transparent. They strip criminal defendants of the due process rights we consider fundamental to our justice system. Most importantly, too many nonviolent, low-level, substance-abusing defendants like Jamel Dossie “lose their claim to a future” – to borrow a phrase from Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. – because lengthy mandatory prison terms sweep reasonable, innovative, and promising alternatives to incarceration off the table at sentencing."
Later in the Dossie opinion, Judge Gleeson "urged" Attorney General Holder to use his power to change the mandatory minimums; Judge Gleeson called this a "modest request."
Senator Paul should be commended for following Judge Gleeson's lead and advancing the proposition that mandatory minimums should be abolished. This is certainly not the last we will hear on this issue, but it is refreshing to see two public figures take a potentially unpopular stance against something many experts believe is doing more harm than good.