Fear of being labeled soft on crime has led state and federal politicians on a three-decade-long odyssey through a morass of laws that transformed the criminal courts into chambers of arbitrariness.
Caught with 500 grams of cocaine? Or 100 marijuana plants? How about 28 grams of crack?
Youre going to a federal penitentiary for five years. No questions asked.
Say you were arrested with 5 kilos of cocaine. Or 1,000 pot plants. Or 280 grams of crack?
Say goodbye for 10 years.
Throw in a gun. It may or may not be yours. If its in the room or belongs to a co-defendant, add another five to 25 years to your prison term, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, if youre a kingpin, you can bargain away the names of fellow drug traffickers in your network in exchange for a more lenient sentence. But if you just happen to be a mule at the bottom of the organization who has no information to trade, youre going away.
Dont ask the judge to help you. Degrees of culpability dont matter. Sheer volume and weight of the contraband are all that count. Under the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the judge has no discretion.
These laws were passed in the waning days of the Reagan administrations war on drugs, when the country was hysterical about the scourge of crack cocaine. But imposing minimum sentences are part of a long American tradition extending as far back as the anti-piracy laws of the 18th century.
Rather than put drug lords out of business, these laws filled the federal prisons and drained the taxpayers pockets.
In 1980, about 24,000 people were serving time in federal penitentiaries.
Thats now up to 219,000 and 47 percent of those are doing time for drug offenses.
Each one costs about $30,000 a year to hold in prison to say nothing of the waste in years and lives.
Recently, a handful of conservatives such as columnist George Will and Heritage Action have linked up with the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP to begin rolling back these laws.
The latest convert to the cause is Congressman Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Last week, Labrador introduced a bill to:
- Cut the length of the minimum sentences for drug offenses in half.
- Apply an earlier-passed measure imposing a more lenient standard for crack cocaine possession retroactively upon people convicted and sentenced under the harsher statutes, a regimen that fell more harshly on African-Americans.
- Allow federal judges more discretion to disregard a defendants earlier criminal record if the offenses were minor.
Joining Labrador are eight co-sponsors tea party conservatives on the right, inner city Democrats on the left. Among them are Reps. Robert Scott, D-Va., and John Conyers, D-Mich.
Labradors bill is less ambitious than an earlier version backed by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Their measure would essentially empower federal judges to waive the mandatory minimum laws for more offenses, including guns. But Labrador told the Statesman that his version might be something we can pass now rather than wait several years.
This is not Labrador acting in his own narrow political self-interest. Odds are no one will vote for a congressman who took a step toward compassion and fiscal sanity. As such, he merits no small amount of credit.