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Mandatory Prison Sentences are an Injustice

It may be a very strange political partnership, but it appears that President Barack Obama and Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, and Rand Paul, R-Ky, are intent on fixing an injustice that has sent (and kept) tens of thousands of Americans behind bars for years—sometimes decades. In an election year, passage could be difficult as many incumbents facing tough re-election campaigns may not want to appear soft on crime in the face of opponents likely to capitalize on such a stance.

What is at stake here is the revamping of federal laws that impose mandatory prison sentences for a host of non-violent, first-time drug offenses. These mandatory sentences have existed since 1986, and have swollen federal prisons to more than 250,000 men and women housed in over 140 federal penal institutions—nearly every one of them reporting severe overcrowding.

While the sheer number of Americans currently incarcerated is staggering, the real injustice is the absence of a true judicial process. Under federal law, the overwhelmingpower to convict rests not with the judge—as 97 percent of all federal convictions are without a trial—but, with the U.S. Attorney.

In December 2013, syndicated columnist George Will highlighted four specific individuals who represent only a portion of the thousands serving time right now. According to Will, even federal judges are frustrated by the current system that results in annual expenditures in excess of $7 billion a year for the Bureau of Prisons, and tens of billions more for state and local prisons. The unfathomable sum of $79 billion is often taunted as the total cost of incarcerations in the United States.

U.S. District Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York issued a statement of reasons last year expressing his dismay that his official duties often force him away from the administration of justice and into a role of inflicting injustice. Gleeson and other judges have noted that they are forced to impose mandatory sentences when those sentences do not fit the crime simply because that is the way the laws have been constructed. Judges must follow mandatory sentence guidelines and any departure above or below those minimums are justification for appeal.

While the issue of mandatory sentences is certainly as controversial today as it was when it was enacted nearly three decades ago, one thing is certain: prison populations have exploded and so has the illegal drugs that the law was meant to deter.

The Leahey-Paul bill has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and referred to the full Senate for debate, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is reported to be holding the bill pending a House sponsor. If Congress is unable to pass reform this year, President Obama should use his presidential power of clemency to commute the sentences of thousands who are serving ridiculous sentences behind bars. Better yet, he can order the Justice Dept. to stop the practice of plea bargaining under less than fair circumstances. For a president who likes to govern by executive order, both options are constitutional and fitting.

The U.S. needs major reform in how we are tackling crime. Locking up thousands of Americans every year is not the answer and it does not work.