Conservatives Embrace Cut in Mandatory Sentences

Sunday, 29 Sep 2013 06:57 PM

By Greg Richter

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It's not just liberal Democrats trying to get rid of mandatory sentencing laws – conservatives, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others have joined the fight.

Paul has co-sponsored the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in an effort to ease crowded prisons. The law would allow judges to consider defendants on a case-by-case basis and hand down less than the mandatory minimum sentence if he or she determines the defendant isn't a threat to public safety.

The plan saves public dollars, which conservatives like, but it also promotes personal responsibility – another conservative tenet. In addition to the cost of housing prisoners being greatly reduced, offenders are more able to pay restitution when they are working rather than sitting behind bars.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a leader in the effort with its Right on Crime Project. The project has been used on the state level in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina to cut the penalties for low-level drug possession; expand drug courts, which save time and money; take money once used to fund prisons to provide better law-enforcement methods; and expand community-based programs, reports

Prison systems currently cost taxpayers some $50 billion a year, reports, and people on probation in Texas a few years ago paid $45 million in restitution, while prisoners paid only $500,000.

"Our country’s mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the Constitutional Separation of Powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer," Paul said when he introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, authoried an op-ed in The Hill praising the bill.

They quoted University of Chicago economist and "Freakonmics" author Steven D. Levitt saying he had changed his mind on his pro-prison ideas from the 1990s.

"In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration.” Levitt said. But now, “I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a similar move in August when he directed his office not to pursue some lower-level drug offenders.

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