Sentencing Reform

Obama Agrees With Rand Paul That Mandatory Minimums Should Be Abolished

The president joins the Kentucky senator in calling for sentencing reform.



"For nonviolent drug crimes," President Obama said in a speech on criminal justice reform yesterday, "we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences or get rid of them entirely." That position is similar to the one taken by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2013, when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I am here to ask that we begin the end of mandatory minimum sentencing."

Of the various sentencing reform bills before Congress, the Justice Safety Valve Act, which Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced that year and reintroduced last February, is the only one that would effectively abolish federal mandatory minimums. Paul and Leahy's bill leaves the penalties on the books but allows judges to depart from them in the interest of justice, which makes them suggestions rather than mandates.

During his speech, which he delivered at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, Obama praised Paul for his work on criminal justice reform, which also includes legislation aimed at restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies, expunging criminal records, equipping police with body cameras, and imposing limits on civil forfeiture.  "To his credit, he's been consistent on this," Obama said. 

The president has been somewhat less consistent. Obama criticized excessively harsh sentences as a state legislator and as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and while running for president he decried the racially disproportionate impact of mass incarceration. But after he moved into the White House, he seemed to lose interest in the issue, with the notable exception of signing a 2010 bill that reduced crack cocaine sentences. His remarkably stingy clemency record during his first term reinforced the impression that he had put criminal justice reform on the back burner, assuming it remained on the stove at all.

That began to change last year, when Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder repeatedly decried the injustices wrought by mandatory minimums. Their rhetoric was accompanied by modest steps toward correcting those injustices, including new charging instructions for federal drug defendants and a sudden interest in commutations. This week Obama more than doubled his commutation total in a single day, shortening the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders.

"In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime," Obama said yesterday. "If you're a low-level drug dealer…you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don't owe 20 years. You don't owe a life sentence."

Obama and I have different ideas about the appropriate sentence for someone whose only crime is engaging in consensual transactions with other adults. But we both agree that 20 years is too long. Now that he has belatedly turned his attention to this issue, I hope he can help make such outrageous outcomes less common.

[I have expanded the opening quotation to clarify that Obama was talking specifically about mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.]

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  1. Obama praised Paul for his work on criminal justice reform…

    Praising the enemy? He either doesn’t see Paul as a serious contender or he doesn’t care who comes in behind him.

    1. Well, it’s not like Obama has anything to loose at this point. Plus gotta reclaim some traditionally Team Blue territory.

      On the other hand, it might be a conspiracy by the GOP to make Paul appear soft-on-crime!

      1. Well Obama praising a Republican during primary season will probably hurt that candidate. Whether that’s intentional I cannot say.

    2. It’s really odd(*), but this is the only time I hear Paul’s name on the conservative outlets like Fox News.

      I’ve seen numerous discussions of polls on that channel and other places, and periodically Paul’s name will be mentioned by the anchor or article writer as they sum up the standings. But you can tell that any “Panelist” or “Analysis Expert” has gotten the message that the less they speak about Rand, the better. They will go into detailed analysis of Trump or Bush and then when they talk about the rest of the field (people with the same standings as Paul) they will always mention Cruz, Rubio and Christie who are at or below Paul’s standings without saying anything about Paul. And the Anchors never question them about it.

      With Ron Paul, there was always at least a dismissive statement about how unserious he was as a candidate. But with the current cycle, they are absolutely silent on Rand. Quite curious.

      1. (*) And no, it isn’t odd at all. There is definitely a desire to ignore this troublesome candidate, no matter how well he polls.

      2. “But you can tell that any “Panelist” or “Analysis Expert” has gotten the message that the less they speak about Rand, the better.”

        I know it looks like butthurt to talk about these things, but this is so true and also so annoying. From March ’13 through about eight weeks ago, mainstream conservative media (Fox, National Review) were wall-to-wall Paul, probably because he is good for ratings. After a concerted effort to name and shame him for heresies on foreign policy (all the Peter King, McCain, Kristol, etc on-air putdowns), it seems the powers-that-be have decided on a “just ignore him” strategy. Coincidentally, around this time, Fox started just leaving him off of polls entirely, until they were caught out for it.

        There just seems to be so much narrative-crafting on both sides (but like handing out free shit, the left will always be better at this game), and even if we’re supposed to adopt a cynical, jaded, “it is what it is” posture about it all, it is still just so… annoying. I can’t think of a better word.

        1. I want to be upbeat and optimistic about the political landscape: we have a left entirely consumed by petty cultural concerns and identity politics, Democratic candidates expressly running AGAINST the sharing economy and the freedom to work as a contractor in a depressed economy, led by elites who are exposed liars. But obviously these conditions are not enough to dramatically change course, or else President Romney would be in charge. So it stands to reason that the only way to really get this all turned around is through the leadership of a charismatic and non-threatening radical. The only radicals in the race are Paul and Cruz (perhaps Walker), and only one of those can claim the mantle of optimistic change-agent. Cruz is simply too strident. Rand is truly the closest thing we’ve had to Reagan in this sense: he weds radicalism with sunny optimism and hope. Reagan didn’t create a wholly new political term (“Reagan Democrats”) by being a scold, but neither did he try to masque or hide his radical agenda in order to win “the middle.” He confidently and boldly offered a way to prosperity for those sick of the 70’s malaise. The parallels to today are striking, and the opportunity to drag millions of disaffected Democrats over to a Rand Paul GOP is not a mirage.

    3. Dems wouldn’t mind running against Rand. They think they can tie him to Ron’s positions that they think Americans would hate. And there’s the whole Alex Jones thing. I know he was on there 5 years ago, but places like Media Matters haven’t shut up about it since his announced his candidacy. And with Jones getting publicity for some real kooky shit (even by his standards) about the UN being “a space cult” determined to turn everybody gay so they can shrink the population (uh, Alex, you know gays and lesbians have artificial insemination, right?) He’s got to make sure he never even steps foot in Austin, TX so Team Hillary can’t run “Rand visits old buddy!” stories.

    4. Its about time that both the feds and all the state’s eliminate at least most of the minimum mandatory sentences. Except for the most violent of crimes, like murder. We have the world’s highest incarceration rate by a wide margin. Too many politicians playing games with peoples lives by mandating long prison terms for minor indiscretions. Most states are already scaling back these draconian practices. However, Jeb Bush’s Florida is increasing their minimum mandatories at a alarming pace. In 1999, Bush as Florida governor passed 10-20-life. It mandates said lengths of prison time if they can show that a person owned a gun while they committed any type of felony. Even if the gun had nothing to do with a crime. They only need to prove that you owned a gun to give you 10 years in prison. 20 if a gun is discharged in the air and life if it is aimed at someone and misses the target. The state of Florida also recently passed a 4 year minimum prison term for fleeing the scene of an accident resulting in property damage totaling more than 100 dollars, and life in prison if anyone is injured in the slightest way. This state has the longest prison terms of any state nation wide. And police, judges, politicians, personal injury lawyers, and law and order conservatives love this. As long as they get exemptions from these laws when they break them. Which of course they do. Most of these laws exempt government employees from them.

      1. Mandatory minimums for murder: why have them? Think about a bar-fight and how much depends on whether the victim hits his head, as to what the charges will be.
        What is the purpose of sentencing for murder or any other crime? Obviously, if the main purpose is public safety, then it depends on why the murder was done, and whether the perpetrator is likely to ever do it, again. Some people may have to be locked up for life.
        If the purpose is punishment, then there needs to be an option not to punish, even though guilty, because punishment is supposed to be corrective, not merely vindictive or cruel. Punishment that is supposed to “teach a lesson” is not necessary if they already learned the lesson, or if punishment is unlikely to teach the lesson (you might just have to keep them off the streets because they’re still dangerous).
        It would be great if we could add restitution to the equation.
        We must lock up those who are a danger to society, but those who are not should have their life and liberty respected to the highest degree possible, and be allowed to return to society as soon as possible (so many of these are children tried as adults, or “adults” old enough to join the Army, but still immature).
        One thing is sure: politics does not promote or even permit this kind of judiciousness.

    5. Jeb Bush called the recent murder of a California woman by an illegal immigrant who snuck back into the country five times an act of love. His brother George W. Bush eliminated the statute of limitations on all federal crimes in 2004. Except for crimes involving government corruption which must still be brought within the old five year limitations period. So now fed prosecutors can charge people 40 years latter for even misdemenor crime if they so choose. Note: this should be added to my other comment on this page. For some reason this website only allows really short comments to be posted. So I was forced to split my comments up. This policy only wastes the commentators time, as it forces people to retype their comments. And I only type about five words a minute, which really pisses me off. Why bother to expend the effort using good grammer, when the poster of the comments will only be forced to retype them anyway?

    6. I may not agree with Obama on much; but, I sure agree with him on the need for sentencing reform. I have had it with politicians and special interests playing games with peoples lives by sending them to prison for every little stupid f****** thing. Lets send politicians, police, prosecutors, judges, personal injury lawyers, regulatory agents, tax collectors, and law and order conservatives to prison for life instead!

  2. He has to make the D’s look good on this for Hillary. Can’t let Rand Paul come in and steal the black votes.

    1. I don’t think he would get black votes anyway. They tried the “Rand Paul stands up for Ferguson” approach, and they didn’t care. He also didn’t seem to really impress anybody going to Howard University a few years ago. The whole “Republicans = Racists. Even the black ones” belief is far too strong. It would take at least a generation to change, and they didn’t start working on it until last year, so we’ve got a few Presidential elections before I believe black people wouldn’t feel like they’re selling out their race for voting for a Republican (even if Ben Carson runs, they aren’t voting for him.)

      1. Did you watch the same YouTube videos I did? There were quite a few Howard students interviewed after Paul’s visit who seemed to view him in a positive light.

  3. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime,” Obama said

    “…, but enough about Eric Holder, Lois Lerner, and Hillary Clinton.”

  4. I can’t remember the last time I had cause to write these words, but: good job, Obama.

    1. He hasn’t actually done anything yet… it’s all just words like his campaign speeches.

  5. I truly hope he’s planning a mass commutation after the 2016 election. The DOJ has 30,000+ commutation applications pending…

  6. crime has decreased und three strikes laws, oh well so much for peace in the streets. BTW since Cali has voted to release so called non-violent offenders crime has increased, the SF sherriff admits this but the state says its decreasing and that is only because the police no longer pursue or bother to charge anyone who steals less then $950.00. its a mixed up world we live in crime is now okay.

    1. Nice Chicken Little impression.

      Violent crime is and has been on the decline.

      Sorry that I don’t really give a shit about locking up drug users or others involved in “victimless crimes” like dodging the King’s Revenue Collectors.

      1. Ron just got rekt!

  7. Summary Execution would be a welcome change.

  8. End your racist war on drugs –

  9. I’ve heard of friends on jury duty shocked to find out they participated in unjust sentencing, and wholeheartedly agree we should not have mandatory minimums or ex post facto punishment under “three strikes.” Jurors, of course, if they guess that these factors are at play (because the system hides this info from jurors), can nullify them.
    However, what business is this of the federal government? The only crimes in the Constitution are counterfeiting and treason, and the like. The Feds can’t even get those right. We should leave sentencing for the other crimes to the states.
    If the Supreme Court wants to weigh in, they can rule mandatory minimums unconstitutional, but they won’t (in fact, I assume they’ve already ruled them constitutional).
    Although both Congress and the Executive branch have a duty to uphold our due process rights, and can refuse to prosecute or sentence, or can overturn sentences or convictions, I don’t think they have the authority impose new laws on the other jurisdictions.

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