Who would have imagined Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on the same side on an issue? But they have joined forces on the critical topic of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
A sentencing overhaul bill supported by Holder and the Obama administration deserves bipartisan support, and should get it.
Standing in the way will be those who fail to see the practicality and cost savings from keeping out of an expensive prison offenders who are more likely to be drug addicts than drug kingpins.
That wasn’t the thinking back in the 1980s when crack cocaine had people running scared, resulting in sentences for crack cocaine crimes many times more severe than for the chemically identical powder version.
The rule meant that possession of five grams of crack cocaine would mandate the same minimum sentence as 50 grams of powder cocaine. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to reduce the disparity. But more should be done.
Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines and he wants judges to have more discretion when sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.
Imbalanced sentencing has disproportionately affected black Americans, who received lengthy prison terms and are hugely overrepresented in the inmate population.
The issue resonates with Libertarian-leaning Republicans who understand the result of these ineffective and fiscally wasteful mandatory sentences. It is the reason Paul is backing the sentencing overhaul bill supported by two people he has opposed in the past over civil liberties issues.
Paul is optimistic that the bill will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman. Also on board are tea party Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, neither of whom can be accused of being a cheerleader for Obama. Similar legislation is pending in the House.
It is time to correct a mistake from the past that mandated minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. Beyond being the compassionate thing to do, look at the cost. Holder points out that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons.
Attitudes toward nonviolent drug offenders have changed since the epidemic scare of the 1980s. Congress should join the movement to a more equitable and economically sensible resolution of the problem.