Rand Paul, The Justice Safety Valve Act, and Lex Talionis

rand paulI appreciate Sen. Rand Paul’s passionate op-ed, “The devastating collateral damage of an insidious drug-war weapon,” in the Washington Times regarding new legislation – Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 – he’s introducing, aimed at giving more discretion in sentencing in response to the current minimum sentencing laws that punish non-violent drug users. I quote him from the article at length:

Mandatory-minimum sentences automatically impose a minimum number of years in prison for specific crimes — usually related to drugs. By design, mandatory-sentencing laws take discretion away from prosecutors and judges so as to impose harsh sentences, regardless of circumstances.

Since mandatory sentencing began in the 1970s in response to a growing drug-and-crime epidemic, America’s prison population has quadrupled, to 2.4 million. America now jails a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country, including China and Iran, at the staggering cost of $80 billion a year. Drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.

Most public officials — liberals, conservatives and libertarians — have decided that mandatory-minimum sentencing is unnecessary. At least 20 states, both red and blue, have reformed their mandatory-sentencing laws in some way, and Congress is considering a bipartisan bill that would do the same for federal crimes.

About 1.3 million people — more than half the total prison population — are behind bars for nonviolent crimes, and federal prisons are 40 percent over capacity. “It’s a waste of tax dollars and human lives,” said Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance.

It’s time for these unjust laws to end.

On March 20, I introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 with the Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. We have been joined by Sens. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat; Angus King, Maine independent; and Kristen Gillibrand, New York Democrat, in the Senate, and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia Democrat, joined by 11 others, introduced similar legislation in the House. The legislation is short and simple. It amends current law to provide “authority to impose a sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum” if certain requirements are met.

Mandatory-minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse, while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives. Each case should be judged on its own merits, yet mandatory minimums prevent this from happening. The Justice Safety Valve Act will be an important step in improving justice in our nation’s courtrooms.

I believe in the principle of lex talionis, that the penal code should not disproportionately punish, in excess, but should be proportionate to the nature of the crime. I think that states, counties, and local municipalities should also introduce reform that doesn’t count as a felony something that should be classified more as a misdemeanor, and that certain misdemeanors also be reduced to infraction status. This will help reduce the logjam of cases in many courthouses, the cost of public defenders, the cost of incarceration itself, among other things.

At the very least we can admit that there’s much tension on this issue of drug use. This bill is not aimed at decriminalizing drug use in one big full swath, but rather in giving more discretion in the justice system on the sentencing phase, which allows that tension to play out in ways that will lead to more just retribution (I would hope).

© 2013, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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