In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. After three decades of warehousing nonviolent drug offenders in prison for long, mandatory stretches, the nation is seeing movement toward a more humane, cost-effective approach. It's an idea whose time has come.
Following the lead of states such as New York that have walked away from harsh mandatory sentences, the Obama administration has taken a few deliberate steps down that road by inviting applications for clemency and changing how new offenders are charged. Congress ought to drive commonsense reform of mandatory minimum sentences even faster and further than Obama. It could save billions of dollars.
There are good reasons why this can happen now.
Crime is down. When federal mandatory minimum drug sentences were enacted in 1986, the country was in the throes of a violent crack epidemic. Less fear of crime today has created a political opening to reconsider fear-driven criminal justice policy.
Another factor is the financial cost. Locking up so many for so long means 217,180 people are in federal prisons today -- half of them for drug crimes. That's an 800 percent increase in 30 years for prisons now 33 percent over capacity. Keeping all those people behind bars cost $6.5 billion last year.
States have shown that dialing back mandatory drug sentences can save money and salvage lives through treatment, while enhancing public safety.
Over the last decade, New York State officials have pruned mandatory sentences the Rockefeller drug laws imposed in 1973. Largely as a result of those reforms, the state's prison population plummeted from 72,600 in 1999 to 54,200 today -- with no uptick in crime -- for a savings of $162 million a year.
Mandatory sentences have put a disproportionate number of black people behind bars. Against that backdrop, President Barack Obama has been under intense pressure to join the fight to curtail the nation's overreliance on incarceration. Now he's answering the call.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced a clemency initiative. Nonviolent, low-level drug offenders -- those with no ties to gangs or cartels, or significant criminal history, and who have served at least 10 years -- were invited to apply. Those who would have received less time for the same offense today will be considered for sentence reductions.
In August, Holder instructed federal prosecutors to stop reflexively charging low-level drug defendants with offenses that trigger mandatory prison time. And in December, Obama commuted the sentences of six people doing time for drug crimes.
With lives to be salvaged and money to be saved, there's something for both liberals and conservatives to love. So even in a Congress paralyzed by partisanship, drug sentencing reform has attracted bipartisan support.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the glaring disparity in sentences for possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Under the old law, 5 grams of crack, or 500 grams of powder, triggered a mandatory minimum of 5 years behind bars.
Now Congress should pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has garnered support among Democrats and Republicans, including presidential aspirant Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). It would slash mandatory drug sentences and give judges more discretion in sentencing. It would also authorize judges to retroactively reduce sentences imposed before 2010 to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act. That would help to redress a shameful racial disparity.
Blacks disproportionately used crack while whites used powder, so blacks got longer prison terms for essentially the same offenses. Congress should have eliminated the weight disparity in 2010, but it did reduce the distinction to 28 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder.
This budding move away from mandatory sentences reflects an important recalibration of the indiscriminate, tough-on-crime approach from a different time that has left the nation the world's No. 1 jailer.