Pubdate: Wed, 27 Mar 2013
Source: Record, The (Stockton, CA)
Copyright: 2013 The Record
Author: Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle columnist


Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., believes that Congress is "about 10 years 
behind the public." So Paul said on "Fox News Sunday" as he argued 
against incarcerating marijuana users. Paul sagely suggested the 
Republican Party should employ such thinking to "appeal across the 
left-right paradigm."

Paul has put his money where his mouth is. Last week, Paul 
co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Their Justice 
Safety Valve Act of 2013 would grant judges greater flexibility in 
the federal mandatory minimum sentencing system.

"I think the American public would be shocked to find out that judges 
don't have the discretion," opined bill supporter Julie Stewart, 
president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Decades ago, in the 
name of going after drug kingpins, Congress passed laws with harsh 
sentencing guidelines that, if unintentionally, ended up condemning 
nonviolent offenders to obscenely long sentences.

Paul told Fox News' Chris Wallace that it is "a mistake to put people 
in jail for marijuana use and throw away the key" - which actually 
doesn't happen in the federal system. To get a sentence of 10 years 
or longer, you have to possess 1,000 marijuana plants, not a joint. 
Nonetheless, that is a long time for a first-time offense, especially 
if it's thrown at people who run state-sanctioned medical marijuana 

On the other hand, the federal system does not simply go after drug 
kingpins. The old laws perverted the justice system so that career 
criminals who inform on others win reduced sentences - sometimes 
sentences shorter than those applied to their underlings - while the 
underlings serve overly harsh time.

"What passes for a drug kingpin in 99 percent of the cases is nothing 
more than a young man who can't even afford a lawyer when he's hauled 
into court," Patrick Murphy, U.S. district judge for the Southern 
District of Illinois, told "60 Minutes" in 2004.

As Leahy wrote in a press release, inflexible "mandatory minimum 
penalties can lead to terribly unjust results in individual cases."

Clarence Aaron was no kingpin, yet he is serving a 
life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent first-time drug 
conviction in 1993. The kingpin for Aaron's two large cocaine deals 
got out of prison in 2000. Another dealer is due for release next 
year. Yet unless he wins a presidential commutation, Aaron alone will 
die an old man in prison for a crime he committed as a young man. 
Sadly, President Barack Obama has used his commutation power only 
once - and not for Aaron.

In 1994, Congress passed "safety valve" legislation to prevent such 
excess sentences for low-level drug offenses. The Leahy-Paul bill 
would expand the 1994 law.

As Washington postures to pass anti-gun legislation, voters might 
consider how mandatory minimum sentences for ostensible gun crimes 
have led to other abuses. In 2004, in Salt Lake City, U.S. District 
Judge Paul Cassell proclaimed that he saw no "rational basis" for the 
law to require him to sentence a 25-year-old first-time drug offender 
to 55 years in prison on the same day he meted out a 22-year term to 
a man who had clubbed an elderly woman to death.

Granted, drug dealer Weldon Angelos owned guns and carried a 
concealed weapon during a marijuana deal, but he never brandished a 
gun; he didn't shoot anyone.

Still, Cassell was forced to put Angelos away for twice the sentence 
given to a hands-on killer.

A free country doesn't imprison nonviolent low-level offenders for 
decades. There has to be a mechanism for mercy.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom