The American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been responsible for pushing some of the most appalling legislation in the country, is at least getting it right when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences. After quietly supporting reform behind the scenes (which is how the group nearly always operates), the group’s Cara Sullivan has gone public with an op-ed in the Moonie Times:
Policymakers are correct to be concerned about the status of America’s criminal justice system. At the federal level, there has been a 700 percent increase in the number of federal prisoners over the past 30 years, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at levels nearly 40 percent over capacity. However, as federal incarceration rates climb, state rates have been declining as many states examine evidence-based and data-driven reforms to their criminal justice systems. States are leading the way in criminal justice reform, and the federal government should take notice.
Both levels of government can protect our communities through crafting policies that focus limited resources on dangerous criminals by allowing judges to depart from mandatory-minimum sentences in certain cases of nonviolent offenders. These policies not only strengthen public safety and help balance budgets, but they also help rebuild lives…
Policymakers need to consider alternatives to the inefficient and often unjust status quo of sentencing nonviolent offenders to lengthy and expensive prison stays that do little to protect public safety. Although they differ in approach, these safety valves provide judges with discretion to depart from automatic, pre-established prison sentences for specific offenses — if the court finds the imposition of the mandatory-minimum sentence to be unnecessary or to be a miscarriage of justice. When applied to certain crimes, safety-valve legislation protects public safety by responsibly focusing resources on dangerous offenders who pose a real and clear threat to the community.
Additionally, safety-valve policies are fiscally responsible reforms. Allocating resources for the most serious offenders ensures the criminal justice system is providing the most public safety return per taxpayer dollar. A Washington state analysis found that while incarcerating violent offenders leads to a net public benefit by saving the state more than it costs, imprisoning certain low-level, nonviolent offenders leads to negative returns.
That doesn’t go nearly far enough for me, but it’s a start. And I’m very pleased to see the bipartisan support starting to grow for real criminal justice reform. The real solution to our mass incarceration problem is to legalize drugs, but that’s a pipe dream at this point.