Ignore the Merchants of Misery

The US Senate any day may take up bipartisan legislation to reform federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The proposal is incredibly modest; it does not eliminate any mandatory minimums and will leave many low-level, non-violent drug offenders subject to excessive sentences. Sadly but predictably, this small step in the right direction has elicited the same sort of shameful fearmongering that all sentencing reforms of the 25 years have. Congress should ignore the prophets of misery and pass bold sentencing reform that will make the public safer while saving taxpayers money.

In 1986 and 1988, Congress passed anti-crime legislation that targeted drug offenses. The bills were supposed to target so-called drug kingpins and major traffickers. Right from the start, however, the laws ensnared low-level users and small-time dealers. It was clear the laws had gone too far. When reformers, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) finally convinced Congress to pass a "safety valve" in 1994 so that certain first-time, low-level offenders could be exempted from lengthy mandatory minimums, the fearmongering began. Some accused us of being soft on crime. But after the law was passed, the crime rate dropped for 20 years.

Many states, which had followed Congress's lead in the 1980s and passed excessive mandatory minimum sentencing laws, began to recoil from the social and economic damage these laws were causing. In 1998 and 2001, Michigan repealed what was one of the harshest mandatory minimum drug laws in the country. Again, those of us supporting reform were told that we were putting families at risk of higher crime. Yet, after the law was passed, the state's crime rate fell.

A pattern was clearly emerging; no reform, however modest, could be offered without some people trying to scare the public. When FAMM we persuaded the US Sentencing Commission in 2007 to lower its recommended sentence ranges for crack cocaine offenders and make that change retroactive, the prophets of doom howled. Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey charged, "Many of these offenders are among the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system and their early release...would produce tragic, but predictable results." Then-Senator Hillary Clinton also opposed the retroactivity amendment.

Once again, Mukasey, Clinton, and the Chicken Littles were proved wrong. The US Sentencing Commission conducted a study of those who received early release because of the crack guideline change. The Commission found that those were released early were less likely to reoffend than those who served their full sentences. And, once again, after the guideline change was made, the nation's violent crime rate fell even further.

Given this history, we should not be surprised that doomsayers are issuing hysterical warnings about the modest sentencing reform bill pending in the US Senate. Leading the charge this go-round is Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who said, "It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons."

Senator Cotton is dead wrong, just as the fearmongerers before him were wrong. Some past reform opponents now support the Senate sentencing bill and are using arguments that sound very similar to ones FAMM has been making for 25 years. In fact, former Attorney General Mukasey - yes, the same one - is now urging the Senate to pass reform, writing recently, "[L]ocking up low-level offenders for long prison sentences doesn't reduce crime.... Research shows that longer sentences can often increase recidivism, especially for low-level offenders."

Attorney General Mukasey's switcheroo demonstrates that if you work in Washington, DC long enough, you will see everything. Sadly, Senator Cotton's fear peddling shows that if you work in Washington, DC long enough, you will sometimes see the same things happen over and over and over again.

Congress should ignore the critics' caterwauling and move forward with bold mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The commonsense reforms enacted by Congress and the states over the past 25 years have led to safer streets and communities. There is no reason to believe that we can't do even better.

Julie Stewart is the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year