On Sentencing Reform, Are Libertarian-Leaning Republicans Joining Holder, or Is It the Other Way Around?

Senate Judiciary CommitteeSenate Judiciary CommitteeA story that ran on the front page of yesterday's New York Times describes an "unlikely" alliance between Attorney General Eric Holder and libertarian-leaning Republicans that "may make politically possible the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs." The Times is right that the alliance is significant, but its gloss on the motivation of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other Republican reformers is a bit misleading:

For Mr. Holder, addressing sentencing laws is central to a second-term agenda that also includes defending voting rights and same-sex marriage. Black Americans have disproportionately received lengthy prison terms and are extremely overrepresented in the inmate population.

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime.

Shorter version: Holder wants justice, while Republicans are in it for the money. Yet Paul has passionately and eloquently condemned the injustices caused by mandatory minimum sentences. At a Senate hearing last September, he said:

The injustice of mandatory minimums is impossible to ignore when you hear the stories of the victims....There is no justice here. It is wrong and needs to change.

During the same hearing Paul highlighted the racially disproportionate impact of mandatory minimums:

If I told you that one out of three African-American males is [prohibited] by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow, 50 years ago. Yet today a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The war on drugs has disproportionately affected young black males. The ACLU reports that blacks are four to five times more likely to be convicted for drug possession, although surveys indicate that blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of the people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino.

Paul took up the same theme in an April 2013 speech at Howard University. Furthermore, the sentencing reform bill that Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced last March goes farther than the bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, which is the one the Obama administration is backing. The Paul-Leahy bill, known as the Justice Safety Valve Act, would effectively make mandatory minimums optional, authorizing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice. By contrast, the Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) last July, would make the 2010 reductions in crack sentences retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the "safety valve" that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums. Those are important reforms, but they are substantially less ambitious than the change proposed by Paul, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I am here to ask that we begin today the end of mandatory minimum sentencing."

In short, while Holder deserves credit for decrying and seeking to ameliorate the harm caused by our excessively punitive criminal justice system, he does not have a monopoly on sympathy for people who do not belong in prison, outrage at their predicament, or concern about the relationship between skin color and draconian sentences. If anything, Paul's record on these points is stronger.

Looking beyond sentencing policy, the civil libertarian credentials of Paul and several of his Republican allies are also impressive, especially when compared to the Obama administration's. The Times notes that they "have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government." In fact, "Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder's push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I'm just glad to see that nice Mister Holder finally breaking the chains with which those mean old Rethuglitards have bound him for all these years.

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

    Six Years a Slave...

  • prolefeed||

    To be fair, quite a few Republicans might support sentencing reform for monetary reasons rather than outrage at injustice. But, so what? Who cares what vile thoughts are in someone's head == their intentions -- if the outcomes are good?

  • Grand Moff Serious Man||

    Who cares what vile thoughts are in someone's head == their intentions -- if the outcomes are good?

    A progressive. Even when Paul espouses a position they've long supported a large number of them can't bring themselves to say a kind word about him because he thinks evils thoughts or must have nefarious ulterior motives.

  • ||

    Shocker, the NYT projects completely false motivations onto all parties involved based on TEAM. Who could have seen that coming?

    Why are you reading this shit in any case?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I find the formulation "young black males" to be annoying, and unpleasantly zoological. Is there some disparagement of which I am unaware inherent in the term black men?

  • sloopyinca||

    I'm just spitballing here, but perhaps it's because the black males impacted most by these immoral sentencing laws cut across the age of majority and "young black males" is a shorter way of saying "young black men and minors". After all, there is a distinction from a legal standpoint.

  • sloopyinca||

    In short, while Holder deserves credit for decrying and seeking to ameliorate the harm caused by our excessively punitive criminal justice system,

    This is a fucking crock of shit. Holder deserves credit for finally stepping up when there's political cover to do so? He deserves credit for waiting until after the re-election while people languished in prison cells for the previous 4+ years?

    Sorry, but that's akin to saying the Italians deserve credit for winning WWII because they switched sided right before it ended.

  • Dweebston||

    Why precisely are we singing praises for Holder? He issued a non-binding memorandum to his prosecutors years after his appointment asking not that they discontinue an egregiously unjust policy but rather that they only charge mandatory minimum offenses when they really want to.

    I'd give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he couldn't have done this during the president's first term, but to be honest I think this is purely a face-saving sop to civil libertarians at a time when the administration's approval was sliding. Above all, it's an ignorable bit of advice that gives prosecutors more, not less, discretion in hassling drug law offenders.

  • GILMORE||

    Translating the NYT =

    "Black Americans have disproportionately received lengthy prison terms and are extremely overrepresented in the inmate population.

    Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime are racists."

    And not to niggle (OH SHIT!! RACIST!), but that first sentence seems to be written both backwards and stood on its head in desperation to avoid uncomfortable realities.

    "Over-represented" relative to what? Their share of the *general* population? Or their share of *total crimes committed*?

    "Disproportionately" lengthy terms?.... relative to the same crimes committed?

    - or they receive longer terms overall on average... ignoring the fact that the underlying crimes committed are "disproportionately more severe?"

    I'm just saying. That sentence is worded horribly because *it wants to be*. And from my point of view, I find the willingness of people to actually address social problems to be fairly suspect if they can't even bring themselves to *articulate what they are*

  • Sidd Finch||

    Yet today a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs.

    LOL

  • ||

    What's funny about that?

  • Sidd Finch||

    It's very obviously made-up.

  • Flemur||

    This article is the equivalent of "women earn 77 cents to every dollar a man earns."

    Just as men actually *earn* more money by working longer hours, having more experience and qualifications, "black males" really do commit a lot more crime than anyone else.

    http://www.unz.com/article/rac.....n-america/
    "These charts demonstrate that over the last twenty-five years the weighted correlations for each of the crime categories against the percentages of whites, Hispanics, and “immigrants” (i.e. Hispanics-plus-Asians) have fluctuated in the general range of -0.20 to -0.60. Interestingly enough, for most of the last decade the presence of Hispanics and immigrants has become noticeably less associated with crime than the presence of whites, although that latter category obviously exhibits large regional heterogeneity. Meanwhile, in the case of blacks, the weighted crime correlations have steadily risen from 0.60 to around 0.80 or above, almost always now falling within between 0.75 and 0.85."

  • Calidissident||

    Did you even RTFA? This wasn't about all kinds of crime

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement