During a community meeting in a mostly black neighborhood of Louisville yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pressed his case for sentencing reform. "We went crazy on the War on Drugs," he said. "We have people in jail for life for nonviolent drug crimes. I think this is a crime in and of itself."
Paul is sponsoring legislation aimed at preventing such injustices. Last spring he and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which according to a press release from Paul's office "expands the so-called 'safety valve' that allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in qualifying drug cases to all federal crimes." It actually does quite a bit more than that. The existing safety valve has strict criteria: A nonviolent drug offender is ineligible, for instance, if he has more than one criminal history point, possessed a gun (even if he never used it), or played any sort of supervisory role. Paul's bill includes no such conditions, and it applies to all federal crimes, not just drug offenses. It would add a new subsection to Title 18, Section 3553 creating this general rule:
Notwithstanding any provision of law other than this subsection, the court may impose a sentence below a statutory minimum if the court finds that it is necessary to do so in order to avoid violating the requirements of subsection (a).
Subsection (a) lists the factors to be considered in imposing a sentence, which include, along with deterrence and public safety, "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant" as well as "the need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment." Hence Paul's bill would allow judges to impose sentences below the statutory minimums in the interest of justice, which makes those minimums no longer mandatory. As with deviations from federal sentencing guidelines, which used to be mandatory but are now advisory as a result of Supreme Court rulings involving the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, judges would have to explain their reasons for disregarding the recommended minimum, and prosecutors could appeal sentences they deemed too low.
Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, notes that "judges follow the previously mandatory guidelines in about 80 percent of the cases," adding, "We suspect judges would follow the mandatory minimums for most cases too, at least for a few years until they got used to having discretion again." Still, the Justice Safety Valve Act represents major reform, potentially far more consequential than the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced penalties for crack offenses. Paul is scheduled to discuss his bill tomorrow at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs.
In addition to sentencing reform, Paul raised the issue of restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons, perhaps five years after they have completed their sentences if they do not commit any more crimes. A.P. reports that "some participants in the discussion said they thought five years would be too long to wait for a restoration of rights." I agree. More to the point, if Paul "would just as soon take some of these nonviolent crimes and make them misdemeanors," which he also said, why take away the voting rights of people who commit them in the first place? Imposing lifelong legal disabilities (such as loss of Second Amendment rights) on felons who have completed their sentences is an extreme step that is taken far too readily. It surely is not appropriate for people who never should have been treated as felons in the first place.