By Alan Bean
It wasn’t too long ago that ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, was shilling for the private prison industry. Perhaps because that didn’t do much for the group’s reputation, they are now endorsing reforms which, if adopted, could significantly reduce the federal prison population.
Known as the Justice Safety Valve Act, the measure would give federal judges the freedom to depart from mandatory sentencing guidelines in cases involving non-violent offenders. The idea is that draconian federal sentences should be reserved for the worst of the worst.
Conservatives like this idea because the tax payer foots the bill for unnecessarily harsh prison sentences that do nothing to augment public safety. Although I have often criticized president Obama for his inaction on the criminal justice reform front, his weak reform record may be a blessing in disguise. Conservative law makers who instinctively oppose everything the president is for are now free to support this common sense legislation without appearing to endorse one of Obama’s pet projects.
It is nice to see ALEC and FAMM on the same side of an issue. This is yet another sign that political conservatives are doing far more than their liberal counterparts to further the cause of reform.
I wonder if it would be possible to make this law retroactive? Ramsey Muniz, an icon of the Chicano movement in Texas, is serving a life sentence because of federal mandatory minimum laws. Muniz is demonstrably innocent, but you have to spend several hours digging through the arcane details of the case to realize that. Even those who believe he did the crime must question the justice of keeping a 70 year-old man who can no longer walk without assistance in prison. And, even if you aren’t offended by the bizarre gyrations the feds used to convict Ramsey, he has never been accused of violent crime. In short, he is precisely the kind of inmate the Justice Safety Valve Act is designed to help.
A major conservative policy organization has endorsed criminal justice reform, lending further bipartisan support to a bill in Congress that would lessen mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenses.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market advocacy group that works with legislators and businesses to craft model legislation, gave its approval to the Justice Safety Valve Act on Monday.
The bill would allow judges to depart from imposing mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent criminals when they believe different sentences are appropriate.
Such a policy would save money by ensuring that only truly dangerous criminals spend decades in prison on the taxpayer’s dime, wrote Cara Sullivan, a legislative analyst at ALEC.
“This helps ensure lengthy sentences and prison spaces are reserved for dangerous offenders, allowing states to focus their scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This approach, as opposed to simply throwing more dollars at corrections, reduces prison overcrowding while still holding offenders accountable.”
Many of the people sentenced under mandatory minimums were convicted of selling drugs, and committed no violence. Some were found guilty of breaking federal marijuana laws, even though they resided in states where growing and selling marijuana are legal under state laws.
While many conservative lawmakers once held to a “tough on crime” approach to criminal sentencing, the inefficiency and financial waste of imposing harsh sentences on low-level drug offenders has pushed libertarian-leaning elements of the GOP to embrace the Justice Safety Valve Act. Conservatives are also concerned that federal laws interfering with judges’ abilities to set appropriate sentences — and states’ rights — are just another example of overreach on the part of the Obama administration.
President Obama has not yet taken a stance on the Justice Safety Valve Act, though he previously expressed support for the idea before he became president.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice advocacy group, praised ALEC’s decision to add its voice to the call for sentencing reform.
“There is nothing conservative about inefficient, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws that cost billions in tax dollars and offer no public safety benefit in return,” wrote Greg Newburn, Florida project director for FAMM, in an email to TheDC News Foundation. “ALEC’s adoption of a model safety valve reflects the growing consensus among conservative lawmakers that mandatory minimums are ripe for reform.”
The Justice Safety Valve Act is co-sponsored by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. It also enjoys bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.