Sen. Rand Paul has been one of the leading voices for criminal justice reform throughout his entire senate career, particularly of eliminating what he sees as draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it public on Friday that he would direct federal prosecutors to seek the harshest sentences for non-violent drug offenders, the announcement drew a quick rebuke from Sen. Paul.
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” said Sen. Paul in a statement. “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice.”
Paul added, “Instead, we should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ problem.”
Sessions’ action would essentially reverse former Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive to not pursue harsh sentencing for low-level and non-violent drug crimes. Holder said Friday that Sessions action was “unwise” and “ill-informed” and that the policy was “not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime.”
Criminal justice reform has become a bipartisan issue in recent years, with conservative Republicans like Sens. Paul and Mike Lee of Utah pushing to discard mandatory minimum sentencing because it has damaged the lives of many non-violent offenders because the federal guidelines impose penalties that outsize the crime committed. Lee was first inspired to take up the issue after encountering the case of Salt Lake City native Weldon Angelos — a hip-hop producer who was sentenced 55 years in prison for a first offense marijuana charge because a gun was also present at the scene of the crime.
“I had seen harsh sentences, but this was taking it to a whole new level,” Lee told Deseret News last week. Lee wrote President Obama a letter pleading Angelos’ case, and noted, “A sentence for selling marijuana that is five times longer than a child rapist’s is not only unjust — it is inexplicable.”
Sen. Paul wrote in a USA Today op-ed in 2013, “Mandatory minimums most harm those lacking in the means to defend themselves. These laws disproportionately target the poor and minorities.”
“Getting rid of mandatory minimums simply means allowing judges to use their discretion in sentencing, rather than having to follow the current, draconian federal parameters that are totally detached from the very human situation at hand,” Paul added.
Paul also noted, “A report released recently by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that nationally, blacks were four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. It also indicated that these unfortunate numbers were true despite the fact that marijuana use is about the same for both black and white Americans.”
While Paul, Lee and other Republicans have tried to steer their party away from counterproductive “tough on crime” attitudes the GOP has been associated with in the past, Sessions seems firmly stuck in the 1980s, even once saying “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Disclosure: I co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Sen. Rand Paul.