In Debate Over Drug Sentences, It’s Career Drug Warriors v. Everybody Else

CREDIT: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Another top Republican called for an end to the drug war this week. During remarks at the American Enterprise Institute on poverty, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) conceded that drug war arrests and prosecutions “have not been effective.” While he did not explicitly endorse either of two bills in Congress to reform mandatory minimum sentences, he said he’s for “prison reform” — touting his own prison reform bill that would allow inmates to reduce their sentences by completing programming.

He repeatedly called criminal justice reform a “constructive, conservative approach” and many have agreed. Among the conservative and unlikely proponents of sentencing reform are fellow Republican Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), the American Legislative Council and the largest association for correctional officers. And deep red states like Texas and South Carolina have passed expansive criminal justice reform bills to reduce prison overcrowding.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is pending in the Senate after having cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 13-5. But a group of former law enforcement officers spoke out in opposition Tuesday, saying in a letter to Senate leaders that their experience on the “front lines of justice” has persuaded them of the importance of mandatory minimum sentences. Twenty-nine individuals signed the letter, including several former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Office of National Drug Policy, and former federal prosecutors. Other law enforcement associations are also lobbying against the law, which could have an impact on prison and law enforcement budgets.

These are individuals who spent their careers enforcing the premises of the drug war or who stand to lose funding for prison and law enforcement budgets, and they are institutionally inclined to oppose changes to the sentencing regime. As Radley Balko writes, “it probably stings a bit to see the public turn its back on a principle for which you spent much of your professional life fighting.”

But they appear to be the only ones opposing the bill. While 29 individuals signed the letter against reforming mandatory minimums, another 100 law enforcement officers and federal judges endorsed sentencing reform more than a year ago. They have since been joined in their endorsement by none other than the nation’s top prosecutor, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The letter reasons that existing law “already provides an escape hatch” because individuals can plea bargain their way to a lesser charge. But the prosecutors do not mention how the minimums coerce individuals into pleading guilty, even when they are innocent or might have a defense to raise at trial. It also warns that removing the minimums will make it harder to “build cases against kingpins.” But in case after case, judges have lamented that the law requires them to sentence low-level offenders like kingpins, to the detriment of both those individuals and the U.S. prison system.

In his remarks Tuesday, Portman told the story of Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath, who after 30 in his profession is “returning to the same homes to arrest the same convicts’ children for the same crimes.” “And now their kids are being left without fathers,” said Portman “The odds are against them from the beginning.”