Mandatory minimums: Where liberty and liberals meet

The Concordian Politics Blog

My name is Gage Degerness, and I hail from Mahnomen, Minnesota.  I am currently a sophomore majoring in both Political Science and Economics.  I draw my political beliefs from the small town I grew up in, my family, and from the inspiring work of Dr. Ron Paul.  Growing up, my mother stressed the value of applying the golden rule as much as possible in everyday life, as well as the value of knowledge and hard work.  I was introduced to libertarian political concepts when I stumbled across a Ron Paul video on YouTube, and I’ve been enthralled with the ideas of freedom and liberty ever since.

Among all the current political turmoil regarding Syria, it is comforting to know that there are at least a few things the Obama administration and the rising libertarian wing within the Republican party can agree on, one of them being the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing.

On Monday, August 12, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for federal courts, saying “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”  Holder also endorsed “steps to address ‘shameful’ racial disparities in sentencing, the budgetary strains of overpopulated prisons and policies for incarceration that punish and rehabilitate, ‘not merely to warehouse and forget.’”

Lucky for libertarians and progressives, Rand Paul has advanced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would enable Justices to once again to use their discretion in deciding cases, rather than be beholden to an arbitrary federal law.  Paul has announced that he is encouraged to work with Holder and that he “look[s] forward to working with them in advancing his… legislation.”

Measures like Paul’s new bill are important because they restore Constitutional checks and balances to the modern judiciary system.  The judicial branch has long held the authority to determine sentencing for various crimes, not the legislative branch.  The Constitution is very clear on this subject: Article 1 Section 8 only gives Congress the power “to define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high seas…,” not the power to define and punish non-violent drug-related crimes.  Furthermore, Article 3 vests “The judicial power of the United States… in one supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may ordain and establish from time to time,” and that this “judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution…”  If today’s lawmakers opened up and read the Constitution, it would become very apparent that the rightful authority to determine sentencing lies with the Courts, and specifically the judges and justices therein, not the men and women sitting in Congress.

Restoring the judge’s discretion in determining sentencing would also prove very pragmatic.  Over half of today’s federal prison inmates were put there based on drug-related charges.  Housing prisoners is not cheap, and doing away with mandatory minimums would be a step in the right direction for the fiscal future of the United States.  Also, mandatory minimums impose near draconian punishments for otherwise small and non-violent crimes.  Lawmakers have to remember that a person’s entire life is at stake in some cases.  Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing, some people are serving life sentences for incredibly small amounts of drugs, while murderers and rapists get off on lighter sentences.  Allowing judges to once again use their discretion in deciding sentencing rather than using an arbitrary one-size-fits-all rule would allow the punishment to ‘fit the crime’.

Mandatory minimum sentencing is an ugly remnant of the failed ‘War on Drugs’.  It is unconstitutional, costly, and results in ludicrously severe punishment.  Rand Paul’s bipartisan legislation and Eric Holder’s support in ending mandatory minimum sentencing are a welcomed change in the way the United States handles its drug policy.

1 Comment

  1. Very well-written article, Gage! It enlightened me on one area where liberals & libertarians can work together to achieve real progress in advancing freedom in our society. Please keep following this and reporting on it, as well as other areas where these two ideologies can coincide and work together for the common good. I look forward to reading more from you.

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