Judges will tell you that current federal sentencing laws — known as mandatory minimums — don’t actually do anything to keep us safer. In fact, judges will tell you that mandatory minimums do much harm to taxpayers and to individuals, who may have their lives ruined for a simple mistake or minor lapse of judgment.
Mandatory minimums reflect two of the biggest problems in Washington: The first problem is the idea that there should be a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach to all problems, be they social, educational or criminal. This approach leads to our second problem: Washington’s habit of undermining the system our Founding Fathers created. Their system left as much power as possible in the hands of local and state officials, and sought to treat people as individuals, not as groups or classes of people.He focuses on how mandatory minimums affect drug offenses because so many people in prison are there on for that reason.
Our Founding Fathers went to great lengths to prevent the executive and prosecutors from obtaining too much power. The Fourth Amendment was written to stop overzealous searches, and the Fifth and Sixth Amendments were written to establish full due process as an inalienable right.
Ignoring these rights comes with several tangible costs. In the last 30 years, the number of federal inmates has increased from 25,000 to nearly 219,000. That is nearly a 10-fold increase in federal prisoners, each of whom cost the taxpayers $29,027 a year to incarcerate. The federal prison budget has doubled in 10 years to more than $6 billion.
Half of the people sentenced to federal prison are drug offenders. Some are simply drug addicts, who would be better served in a treatment facility. Most are nonviolent and should be punished in ways that do not require spending decades in a federal prison, with meals and health care provided by the taxpayers.
For these reasons and others, last week I joined my colleague Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, in introducing a bill that would authorize judges to disregard federal mandatory-minimum sentencing on a case-by-case basis.Prosecutors use mandatory minimums to force a defendant to accept a plea agreement. The plea agreement means the case avoids trial and the prosecutor avoids having to prove the case in court.
It would be best to abolish mandatory minimum sentences and this bill wouldn't do that, though it is an encouraging start.