The need for criminal justice reform is one of the precious few policy areas that garners widespread bipartisan agreement.
Yet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a former U.S. attorney and longtime anti-drug crime warrior — reversed an Obama-era policy aimed at keeping non-violent drug offenders out of the federal prison system.
Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to charge forward with a policy that has generated enormous human and economic pain with no quantifiable benefits.
Kentuckians can be proud that our junior U.S. senator, Rand Paul, called Sessions out on his disastrous decision.
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The mandatory-minimum laws that prescribe longer sentences for even low level drug crimes have, “unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Paul said, adding Sessions’ directive “will accentuate that injustice. 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.”
In his letter to federal prosecutors, Sessions described his policy as “moral, and just” but it is neither. It’s also not smart.
As Paul’s statement indicates, even though surveys show that blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, severe enforcement of drug laws means more dark-skinned people, mostly men, spend a significant portion of their lives behind bars.
The tough-on-crime approach has not succeeded in reducing illicit drug use in the U.S. — far from it — but it has cost federal, state and local governments billions of dollars as prison populations have swollen.
Even worse, although harder to count, is the cost to the families and communities of those warehoused in prison. Literally locked out of the economy for years, their earning power remains diminished after they’ve served their time.
They are also locked out of participating in our democracy, as Paul pointed out in his remarks rebuking Sessions: “a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting, primarily because of the War on Drugs.”
The fear people feel about the epidemic of illicit drug use that has damaged so many families is real and understandable, and led to the failed war on drugs. It also led the U.S. to imprison more people than all other developed nations combined.
Republicans and Democrats alike — at all levels of government — have recognized that failure and that it’s robbing public treasuries of resources that could more effectively combat illicit drug use.
Sessions’ approach is a throwback that will make us less safe, and less moral and just.