U.S. Attorney General and Republicans Join in Opposition to Stiff Drug Sentencing Laws

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is joining with libertarian Republicans, including Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, in opposing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

This political alliance may make it politically feasible to significantly liberalize sentencing laws, according to The New York Times. Libertarian-minded Republicans oppose long prison sentences because they see them as ineffective and expensive, the article notes. Rand is backing a sentencing overhaul bill in the Senate, and the House is considering similar legislation.

In August, Holder announced a Justice Department plan to change how some non-violent drug offenders are prosecuted. Low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who are not tied to large-scale drug organizations or gangs will not face mandatory minimum sentences.

Under the plan, severe penalties will be used only for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. Holder will give federal prosecutors instructions about writing their criminal complaints when they charge low-level drug offenders, in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. Certain laws mandate minimum sentences regardless of the facts of the case.

In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who had been convicted of crack-cocaine offenses. Six of the inmates were sentenced to life in prison. The inmates likely would have received much shorter terms under current drug laws and sentencing rules.

While powder and crack cocaine are two forms of the same drug, until recently, a drug dealer who sold crack cocaine was subject to the same sentence as a dealer who sold 100 times as much powder cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act, enacted in 2010, reduced the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, for people who committed their crimes after the law took effect. As a result, many defendants who are caught with small amounts of crack are no longer subject to mandatory prison sentences of five to 10 years. Those convicted of crack-cocaine crimes tend to be black, while those convicted of powder-cocaine offenses tend to be white.

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    Mark Noo

    March 7, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    I think the war on drugs is stupid. Nevertheless, this sort of thing can lead to prosecutorial discretion. This is where one group tends to get mandatory sentencing while the other does not. There is an equal protection clause to our constitution. It demands that the scenario above does not happen.
    I don’t want prosecutors deciding this sort of thing. I think judges should look at the facts and decide what punishment should be awarded by using some unambiguous guidelines.

    Judges know how to follow rules. Lets let our judges get back to the business of passing judgement.
    We have mandatory sentencing in Oregon. Once in awhile someone meets the criteria for crimes that are subject to mandatory sentencing but have not done something that would warrant the sentencing imposed by the mandates. It is obviously unfair and the judge can do nothing.
    If we really believe our judges are so out of touch with what our society want, why don’t we fire them instead of shackling them with bullshit mandates written by special interest groups.
    By the way, I think Oregon’s mandatory sentencing has made our streets much safer. I like the streets safe. what I don’t like is applying unfair punishments to people who meet the criteria for a crime but should be dealt with much less severely. That is where judges should givent the latitude to make fair decisions.

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