The American Legislative Exchange Council was a driving force behind moves to impose tougher sentences and inflate the U.S. prison population. But on Monday, the conservative, corporate-backed group adopted model legislation that would reform draconian mandatory minimum prison sentences, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which sits on the ALEC committee that drafted the legislation.
The ALEC Board of Directors passed a version of the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in both houses of Congress to give judges discretion to reduce statutory minimum sentences that impose onerous sentences for a range of drug and other crimes, FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn told ThinkProgress. ALEC Legislative Director Cara Sullivan did not return an email inquiry from ThinkProgress. She did, however, tell the Daily Caller in an email response that the bill would help “ensure lengthy sentences and prison spaces are reserved for dangerous offenders, allowing states to focus their scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community.”
This language tracks a move in many states to implement “smart” criminal justice reform, motivated both by the onerous cost of bloated prisons and by recognition that over-criminalization does not benefit public safety. But the move is also a major reversal of course for ALEC, which previously supported mandatory minimum sentences that would apply regardless of whether the defendant was sentenced for possession, distribution, or cultivation. It also advocated for three-strikes laws that have since been toned down in most states, and developed a model “Truth in Sentencing” bill — passed into law in at least 25 states — that required every inmate to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, regardless of their rehabilitation or other factors.
According to Newburn, the organization has now altered its position and plans to eliminate mandatory minimum sentence from all or most of its model bills as part of a new Justice Performance Project, which appears aimed at reducing U.S. reliance on mass incarceration. Although ALEC’s model legislation is not yet publicly available, the concept of the Justice Safety Valve Act is that it gives judges a “safety valve” to opt out of the mandatory sentencing regime, and gives judges the authority to sentence below the statutory minimum in order to prevent an unjust sentence. “This approach, as opposed to simply throwing more dollars at corrections, reduces prison overcrowding while still holding offenders accountable,” Sullivan told the Daily Caller.
An increasing number of judges and prosecutors are blasting mandatory minimum sentence regimes, which impose harsh years-long prison terms, particularly for drug crimes. Judges, who have no discretion to lower those sentences, lament that low-level offenders are often given sentences meant for kingpins, to the detriment of those individual offenders, and perpetuating the cycle of mass incarceration. Even medical marijuana growers have faced sentences of 85 years under the mandatory drug sentencing scheme.
Many conservative politicians are also increasingly supporting reform to mandatory minimums and other so-called tough-on-crime criminal justice policies that have led to the United States’ soaring incarceration rate. In Congress, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) were among the sponsors of mandatory minimum reform bills.
ALEC’s about-face is particularly remarkable in light of the organization’s past cozy relationship with the private prison industry, which has an incentive to lobby for more incarceration. And although ALEC maintains its support for Stand Your Ground laws and other NRA-backed provisions, ALEC’s announcement reflects the breadth of momentum for sentencing reform at least at the state level, where it could spare other defendants like Florida’s Marissa Alexander 20 years in prison.