Rand Paul

Today Rand Paul and Pat Leahy Introduced a Bill to Fix Our Atrocious Federal Mandatory Minimum Laws

The bill isn't a panacea, but it is a long overdue step in the right direction.

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Gage Skidmore Flickr

You may have heard recently that the number of people under correctional supervision in the U.S. has been steadily falling over the last few years–from 7.2 million in 2008, to 6.97 million in 2011. While that's true, it's also true that the decline is happening exclusuvely at the state and local levels. The federal prison system has only grown since 2008. Federal detention facilities are currently at 139 percent capacity, and, absent any reforms of federal mandatory minimum laws, are expected to grow indefinitely. Enter Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), and the "Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013," which was introduced today.

Here's why this bill is important: A guy–let's call him Weldon–sells pot to a government informant, who notices that Weldon has a gun strapped to his ankle. The next time the informant buys pot from Weldon, he notices a gun in Weldon's car. When police move in to arrest Weldon, they find guns in his house. Weldon has never fired these guns, never used them to coerce anyone. He has, however, sold pot three times* while in possession of a firearm, so prosecutors charge Weldon with "multiple counts of possession of a gun during a drug trafficking offense." He is convicted. What do you think Weldon's sentence is? Ten years? Twenty years? Try 55 years–five for the first gun-related offense, and 25 for the second and third. That's the mandatory minimum federal sentence for Weldon's charges, meaning the judge who sentenced him could not sentence him to less time–only more.  

Weldon Angelos is a real person, by the way, and the existence of a safety valve in 2004, the year he was sentenced, would've allowed the judge to sentence him to 18 years instead of 55 (that was the judge's preference). It would've meant Weldon, who was 24 at sentencing, would go free at age 42 instead of age 79. But because the federal system has mandatory minimums with no parole, Weldon will spend most of the rest of his life behind bars for selling several hundred dollars worth of pot while wearing a gun on his ankle.

The need for reform is all the more pressing when you consider how many other Weldons are behind bars at the federal level: 218,000 prisoners who doing time in a federal facility in 2011, and 48 percent were drug offenders. 

So how does the safety valve work? Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the chief consult on the Paul-Leahy bill, explains: 

Safety valves allow courts –in some circumstances –to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum if that sentence is too lengthy, unjust or unreasonable, or doesn't fit the offender or the crime. For example, a safety valve allows the court to avoid unreasonable outcomes, such as a first-time drug courier getting the same sentence as a major drug kingpin.

You can read more from Stewart (and Grover Norquist!) in a recent op-ed for The Hill. In anticipation of concerns from prosecutors and tough-on-crime types, the Paul-Leahy bill has pretty strict guidelines for determing when the safety valve can be used: 

  • Judges are not required to use the safety valve.
  • Judges must base their below-minimum sentences on the criteria listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), then consider the sentencing guidelines, not merely substitute their own judgment for the dictates of Congress.
  • Offenders do not have a right to a sentence below the mandatory minimum.
  • If the judge gets the sentence wrong, the decision can be appealed and reversed.
  • Before judges apply the safety valve, the Justice Department has the right to argue that the mandatory minimum sentence is the correct one.
  • Judges must place their reasons for sentencing below the mandatory minimum on the record, in writing.

FAMM's report on the Paul-Leahy bill lays out the fiscal savings of implementing the safety valve, and includes more stories of people who received perverse sentences due to mandatory minimum sentencing. The bill isn't a panacea, but it is a long overdue step in the right direction. 

*This post has been updated to reflect that Weldon Angelos' sentence was a product of him having sold pot three separate times while in possession of a firearm.

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  1. Your bulleted points are repeated, Mike.

    1. Derp. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll fix em now.

      1. I thought you were just being emphatic.

        1. Nobody needs more than 6 bullet points to hunt deer.

          1. We need high-capacity magazines for all those bad shots out there protecting our freedom.

            1. What’s it like to be a mouth-breathing moron, Tony?

              1. Lots of flonase.

  2. But because the federal system has mandatory minimums with no parole, Weldon will spend most of the rest of his life behind bars for selling $350 worth of pot while wearing a gun on his ankle.

    Great! I get to pay to house, feed, and provide medical care for this guy when he should have received a citation…..and by citation I mean a fucking medal for providing a service that people want and will pay for even in the face of draconian socon sentencing laws!

    1. draconian socon sentencing laws

      That fucking Massachusetts socon Tip O’Neill and Charlie Rangel (SoCon-Harlem)

  3. This is a step in the right direction, but it will be nice when the concept of mandatory minimum sentences is consigned to the dustbin of history.

    1. IIRC they became popular in the ’70s, after what seemed like a stream of cases in which perps got very light sentences for major crimes. In theory the concept doesn’t bother me, but it does get absurd when the minimums are far too high.

      1. The fed drug mandatory minimums were Tip O’Neill’s response to the Boston Celtics wasting a draft pick on Len Bias.

    2. Along with all federal drug and firearm laws.

  4. You would have to be a sick motherfucker to vote against this.

    1. So how many more votes will this get, do you think? 2? 10?

  5. “Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of the Judiciary Committee proposes a fix for Republican-inspired mandatory minimums. Meanwhile, teabagging Republican Senator Rand Paul proposes to hurt public-sector jobs by reducing sentences for criminal evildoers.”

    /progtard analysis

    1. No the “progtard analysis” is that Rand Paul is a typical, GOP evil-doer who’s turned to these issues just as new post-2012 GOP gimmick to win back the White House in 2016.

      < Such is the case with people who chose to focus on Rand Paul’s non-issue with 1/9 of the VRA back in 2010.

  6. If I were a judge I’d say fuck it, and sentence how I thought appropriate. If legislators want to do the sentencing then they need to figure out how to right the laws so that I don’t get a say. Cause if I get a say, the sentence is X. I guess that’s one of the infinite reasons I’ll never be a judge.

  7. That kooky Rand Paul. What will he come up with next?!

  8. The congressional black caucus pressed for these laws.

    Rand Paul wants to take their voice away by repealing these laws.

    Ipso facto, Rand Paul is the worst racist ever.

    1. Did the black caucus actually push for mandatory minimums? I know they’re nowhere near as anti-drug war as they should be, given that it absolutely decimates black people, but it would surprise me if they were ever pro-mandatory minimum.

      1. Charlie Rangel sure did. You might find a CBC member who was “soft on drugs” back in the early-mid 1970s but I wouldn’t bet on it.

        1. Hahaha. I just found a reason article about that.

          “We need outrage!” he told the magazine. “I don’t know what is behind the lackadaisical attitudes towards drugs, but I do know that the American people have made it abundantly clear: They are outraged by the indifference of the U.S. government to this problem.

          – Charlie Rangel

        2. Once again, I am appalled by Rangel’s power lust. What a vicious son of a bitch.

          -jcr

          1. Sadly, I’m not. He’s been like that his entire congressional career, willing to demagogue an issue at the drop of a hat if he thinks it’ll help him with the voters.

      2. Yupm Irish they did in fact push for it. It was when crack was america’s scare drug of choice, and they thought that by putting a bunch of their own people in prison for decades they could keep the ghetto welfare state moving along without a hitch by getting rid of the crack dealers. They have since backpedaled on mandatory minimums as it has decimated the black community and imprisoned a generation of young black males.

        Of course, most of this shit has gone down the memory hole as does most marks upon the progressive record.

      3. The CBC also contributed to the cocaine/crack disparity that puts people of color behind bars for longer than people of pallor.

        1. Crack did have a negative effect on Black neighborhoods. The CBC, like nearly all other legislators, didn’t realize prohibition made it worse and harsher prohibition made it way worse.
          The increase in penalties from probation, jail or short stints in prison to draconian sentencing largely chased the least violent players out of the black market.

          1. The CBC, like nearly all other legislators, didn’t realize prohibition made it worse and harsher prohibition made it way worse.

            Yes, but you would think that they would have the good graces to not pretend that it was instituted by racist old white men just to keep a brotha down.

            1. I wouldn’t. They’ll blame anything on racism. I’m mildly surprised they haven’t blamed global warming and asteroids on racism yet.

              1. Obviously global warming is race based.

                I’m not certain asteriods are. Hemorrhoids though, for sure are racist.

  9. Weldon Angelos is a real person, by the way, and the existence of a safety valve in 2004, the year he was sentenced, would’ve allowed the judge to sentence him to 18 years instead of 55 (that was the judge’s preference). It would’ve meant Weldon, who was 24 at sentencing, would go free at age 42 instead of age 79. But because the federal system has mandatory minimums with no parole, Weldon will spend most of the rest of his life behind bars for selling $350 worth of pot while wearing a gun on his ankle.

    It is a shame there isn’t anyone with the power to commute his sentence.

    1. HA HA HA!

      You think the President pardons people out of principle?

      Pardons are like Monopoly “Get out of Jail free” cards, you don’t give them away. You trade them for free hotels on Park Place.

      1. http://www.propublica.org/arti…..-president

        Obama’s granted fewer pardons than any president in modern history. Tony was right! He is a civil libertarian!

    2. Obama could.

  10. From the comments on that article:

    John

    Unfortunately but predictably, the Obama administration is going to go down in history as one of the worst with respect to human rights, and the subjects of pardons is just a small part of the story.

    Worse, he and Romney seem to agree across the board, and nobody in the media will so much as mention a third-party candidate (the first time I can remember), so it’s not like that’s going to magically change in January.

    I guess I didn’t need to post this, since John’s apparently already been there.

    1. Sadly, I am not the John who wrote that. But I wish I was because that comment is exactly right.

      1. That’s not sad it means there are more people like that.

        1. As a presidential power, the pardon is one of the most monarchical. You’re not making a libertarian argument, you’re just trying to figure out how to make this problem all Obama’s fault. And failing ludicrously.

          1. So President unilateral, working below the radar, executive order, doesn’t commute sentences because it is “monarchical”? Really Tony?

            Just admit the truth that Obama doesn’t give a shit about anyone but Obama. He would no doubt sell a pardon or commutation or grant one if he thought it was good for Obama. But giving one out of a sense of justice or fairness, not so much.

            1. I don’t think Obama has a principled position against the pardon. Neither do I. I’m just saying it’s not libertarian if you define libertarian as being against monarchical powers.

              I’m positive the pardon decisions are made with politics in mind, as they always are, except, for example, some Clinton pardons I’m sure you weren’t OK with.

              1. I didn’t realize that there was an against monarchism exception to the NAP.

          2. Yes, wanting to see people imprisoned unjustly by the state set free is totally unlibertarian. Nothing says libertarian like wanting someone to get 55 years with no hope of recourse over mandatory minimum drug laws.

            1. But you’re advocating freeing them by presidential decree. Why not focus on the real problem–as this article does–instead of making everything about Obama? He can’t really pardon all unjustly imprisoned people, and you expecting that he should is absolutely ridiculous.

              1. He’s pardoned the fewest ever, Tony. I like when Obama fanatics say ‘He isn’t superman!’ when all we’re asking is that he be as good as other presidents.

                Fucking Bush had a higher pardon rate than Obama. All we’re asking is that he be as good as George W. Bush. Is that really that hard?

                1. Being as good as GW Bush would be easy for a below-average golden retriever. You’re missing the point. Making the least pardons ever means he’s the most libertarian president on that count. Why does mandatory minimums have anything to do with Obama? If he fails to sign a law fixing that system, then I’ll agree with you that it has something to do with him.

                  1. Making the least pardons ever means he’s the most libertarian president on that count.

                    No, it doesn’t. We value liberty over democracy.

                    1. Democracy isn’t a necessary precondition? So what, you’re for imposing liberty by authoritarian means?

                      That’s just what I’ve always been saying!

                    2. My Google translator is useless! I can’t translate these sentences from Progressive to English.

                    3. All I learned from Google Translate is (country)melamine bowl is the machine-translated Jap word for China.

                    4. That’s funny.

                    5. Democracy is necessary, but not sufficient. Preventing 50%+1 of people from voting to enslave the other 49% in undemocratic.

                      Making the least pardons ever makes Obama the most progressive president ever.

                    6. I was under the impression that tony, at least, would defend Obama’s election and re-election as “democratic.”

                      Ah, but he’s not an elected monarch! That would be totally un-progressive!

                    7. Why not cut to the chase, pardon nobody at all, and become 100% democratic?

                    8. It’s actually very easy democracy. Just get one person to go anti-slavery and you’re good. Would you have it so that 90% can’t enslave 10%? I’d like that, but good luck. Our constitution isn’t that antidemocratic. Once you start writing down inviolable rules that not even 100% of the people can overturn, you’re not in a democracy anymore.

                    9. Which is another way of saying “winning the kultur warzzz” is actually a vital aspect of a free society. You gotta convince people to be anti-slavery if you really want to prevent slavery.

                    10. My Google Translator is broken again, but I no longer care.

                    11. Fools to the left of me, jokers to the right, and one retard right above you, here we are…

                      Trollbot Tony will only be happy when everyone is enslaved equally. That’s why he’s a team blue retard.

                    12. Whereas you’re for most people being enslaved in harsher conditions so the tiny few can enjoy unlimited luxury. That’s why you’re a team red retard.

                    13. Slavery in the sense you are talking ended (no prevention needed).

                    14. Like people willing to enslave their fellow man wouldn’t be willing to cheat at elections?

                    15. Imposing liberty. Hmm. Never heard it put that way. I must say that you have coined the most oxymoronic statement I’ve ever heard.

                      Statism is your default. Excellent distillation of self.

          3. As a presidential power, the pardon is one of the most monarchical.

            You mean just like ordering Drone strikes to kill people is monarchical

  11. “Weldon will spend most of the rest of his life behind bars for selling $350 worth of pot while wearing a gun on his ankle.”

    I’m pretty sure the guys back in 1787 would have all agreed that this is insanely cruel and unusual punishment.

    But the nine bozos say it isn’t, because in today’s insane “justice system” this isn’t unusual at all.

    1. Up until 1937 that wasn’t even a crime in many jurisdictions.

      1. Are your papers in order, mister?

    2. True ’nuff in this specific context; but this should help keep your historical positivism in check- http://www.history.org/foundat…..branks.cfm

  12. It would’ve meant Weldon, who was 24 at sentencing, would go free at age 42 instead of age 79. But because the federal system has mandatory minimums with no parole, Weldon will spend most of the rest of his life behind bars for selling $350 worth of pot while wearing a gun on his ankle.

    You see, this statement says so much about our society. What is says is that our system of government is so broken that is no longer has any validity at all.

    This guy is not the criminal. The system that sent him to prison for this non-crime, and all who advocate it, or work for it in any way, are the real criminals. There is not an imaginary hell in all of literary fiction that is bad enough for the real criminals.

    1. There needs be a new Les Miserables. An American one.

      1. Preferably with no singing, can’t stand musicals.

  13. Interesting how peacefully exercising a constitutional right can land you in jail for decades.

    Maybe the next “crime” will be “multiple counts of possession of a book during a drug trafficking offense.”

    1. multiple counts of possession of a book

      Depends on the book.

      Is that a state approved book you got there? No? I best check the terrorist watch list database, now, citizen.

      Oh, wait, I see you were convicted of calling a classmate, poopey head, when you were in 2nd grade, and that you are banned from owning books for life…

      What’s that? You didn’t know you weren’t allowed to own a book? Ignorance of the 90 googlezillion laws….

      1. Was there a depiction of a weapon, specifically a gun, in said book. Zero tolerance. Give ’em the chair.

    2. I thought this too. In a rational world this law would have been thrown out for being an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment.

  14. As a Vermonter (and current student at his alma mater), I’d like to be proud of Leahy on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this is the first time I’ve been pleased with Leahy in at least 4 years (he really got on my bad side after selling us out to the MPAA on PIPA for a role in The Dark Knight).

    1. Burlington/Chittendon county is pretty great. Leahy isn’t.

      I watched the ’07 State of the Union in one of the on-campus apartments there for a drinking game.

      1. In general, I’ve found he does a reasonable job representing local issues to the federal government (though Welch does it better), but a pretty terrible job (present bill except) on setting national policy.

  15. I’ve found that it’s always best to avoid anything that Patrick Leahy is involved in.

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