By Robert Schlesinger |
Attorney General Eric Holder's decision not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug cases is an encouraging step. Few have criticized the merits of his proposal, but some say that it is for Congress, not the executive branch, to take action. To them we say: we are ready. Join us.
Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair and do not make our country safer. They have played a major role in overcrowding our prisons and have confined us to an unsustainable and irresponsible economic path. In just the last three decades, the federal prison population has soared by almost 800 percent. There is increasing bipartisan support to reverse this trend, and it will take Congress to pass legislation to accomplish that goal.
In March, we introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which allows judges greater flexibility in sentencing federal defendants where mandatory minimums are considered unnecessary. Existing federal law provides a "safety valve" for a very narrow range of offenders in drug cases otherwise subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, but the law has proven insufficient.
Our bill would expand that safety valve to more defendants in more types of cases and has earned support from across the political spectrum, including conservative columnist George Will, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, former National Rifle Association President David Keene, the New York Times, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and more than 50 former federal prosecutors and judges.
Attorney General Holder called our measure and a separate proposal from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, "promising legislation." George Will said our bill "is a way to begin reforming a criminal justice system in which justice is a diminishing component." The Senate Judiciary Committee will continue to build on this growing support when it holds a hearing on the issue of mandatory minimums next month.
The American people are ready to make sentencing reform a priority, and the states are leading the way. Forced by budget constraints to make tough political decisions, states have reduced prison populations while improving community safety. Yet the federal system has lagged behind, and our prison population continues to grow. Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake. These sentences have not reduced crime, but they have imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial.
We are glad the nation's top prosecutor has joined the bipartisan call for reform and we appreciate his efforts to reduce federal reliance on mandatory minimums. But his actions are not enough. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans have an opportunity to negotiate a bipartisan solution that will redirect precious resources towards crime reduction. It is time for Congress to act.
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Michael B. Mukasey Former Attorney General of the United States