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Judges should have the discretion to sentence convicted criminals without interference from politicians.
Monday, April 29, 2013
When crime was rising back in the 1970s, federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws became a nifty way for officeholders to burnish their obligatory tough-on-crime creds.
Today, street crime is way down — perhaps in part because of stiff minimum sentences.
But their cumulative effect on the federal prison system has sent the number of inmates way up, along with the cost of incarcerating them.
These days, with the public worried more about exploding federal deficits than crime, politicians have a rare opportunity to do what is right and what is easy, whether their voter base is liberal or conservative: put greater flexibility in the mandatory minimum sentencing law.
Give judges discretion to do what the public pays them to do: Consider the circumstances surrounding each conviction and sentence individuals fairly.
Virginia 3rd District Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat, paired up with Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky last week to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, the companion to a Senate bill filed last month by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.
In a Congress that remains bitterly partisan, lawmakers have found there are issues the country needs to address that can be resolved in a bipartisan way.
Consider: The federal prison population has swollen from 25,000 in fiscal year 1980 to almost 219,000 in fiscal year 2012.
Just since 2000, the cost of operating federal prisons almost doubled, from $3.7 billion a year to $6.6 billion. The Justice Department says one-quarter of its budget goes to corrections.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service found, the percentage of prisoners serving time for violent offenses dropped by almost half from 1998 to 2012, from 12 percent to 6.4 percent, in a system that is operating at 139 percent capacity.
Mandating that judges impose longer and longer sentences for a lengthier and lengthier list of crimes looks good on campaign brochures come election time.
And there’s always an election ahead. But good politics is bad for public safety when inflated sentences waste limited resources that would be better spent on investigators, prosecutors and anti-recidivism programs.
And then there’s the simple matter of injustice when offenders’ sentences are grossly disproportionate to their crimes. That is intolerable in a just society, which America strives to be.
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