The Senate’s most senior member lamented the utter failure of the so-called “War on Drugs” and other draconian criminal justice policies Wednesday morning. During an address on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 2013 agenda, Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) expressed alarm over high rates of imprisonment, harsh mandatory minimum sentences and federal crackdowns of marijuana laws legal under state law. “We have imprisoned people who should not be there and we have wasted money that should be spent on other things,” he said.
There are too many people, too many young people, too many minorities, too many from the inner city who are serving time in jail for people who might have done the same thing but have the money to stay out and are not there. What I say is if you have a youngster in the inner city buying $100 worth of cocaine for example could end up going to prison for years. If you have somebody on Wall Street buying the same 100 dollars from their local dealer, if they’re caught, they’ll be reprimanded and they may even have to do on Park Avenue a week of public service. That’s not right.
Responding to a question on the acclaimed War on Drugs documentary The House I Live In, he added:
[T]he fact that so many people, especially young people, go to prison for a relatively minor thing, a drug offense. And then you ask, why can’t they get jobs afterward? Why do they have problems from then on?
I think we have spent tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars on the so-called War on Drugs. Well, we’ve lost.
After laying out Judiciary Committee plans to effectively protect public safety by prioritizing the immediate reauthorization of the Republican-obstructed Violence Against Women Act and holding hearings on gun violence prevention, Leahy focused on those elements of the criminal justice system that send the wrong people to jail – and for too long.
“I say this as a former prosecutor … I think the reliance at the state and federal level on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake,” he said. “I’m not convinced that it has lowered crime, but I know it has imprisoned people who should not be there.”
He also advocated for national standards and oversight of forensics testing, saying, “If you have labs that do not give you right results, and you think you can close a case by sending the wrong person to prison, you’ve done nothing for the safety of people” and “you have tragedy of having an innocent person in prison.”
Responding to a question about federal enforcement of marijuana laws, Leahy reiterated his concern that federal resources are misallocated to marijuana crackdowns while murders and robberies go unsolved. “It was also my feeling as a prosecutor,” he said. “I found more important things to do.” President Obama expressed a similar sentiment recently when he told Barbara Walters the administration has “bigger fish to fry” than target marijuana users, but that has not stopped prosecutors from cracking down on medical marijuana distributors in seeming compliance with state law.
Leahy joins a number of world leaders, including Bill Clinton, who have recently blasted the failed War on Drugs approach. Mandatory minimum sentences, discriminatory crackdowns and criminalization of public health issues are all a part of the tough-on-crime system that has sent more of our own to prison than any other country, under the guise of improved public safety.