The Justice Department’s news that it was making a major move to end insanely long sentences for drug offenses came after several states made their own reforms — including red states like Georgia.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, politicians lived in fear of being seen as “soft on crime.” But that attitude has changed in just a few short years.
“There has been a quiet seismic change in the approach here,” Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, tells Business Insider.
In the 1980s, Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes. These laws force federal judges to hand out harsh sentences regardless of mitigating factors such as drug addiction. The crime rate was a lot higher back then, and many state lawmakers followed suit with their own mandatory minimums to please constituents.
Then the U.S. economy went to pieces in 2007 and 2008. Forced to cut their budgets, many states began reforming their drug laws. New York repealed most of its mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 2009, as did Rhode Island. Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, California, and several other states have also reformed their mandatory minimum sentences in recent years.
As both conservative and liberal states continued changing mandatory minimum laws, prison reform got a reputation for being a bipartisan issue. (Previously, Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had been big proponents of the War on Drugs, while Democrat Jimmy Carter pushed to decriminalize pot while running for president.)
These days, there’s an unusual bipartisan alliance on drug policy reform. The conservative group Right on Crime pushed for prison reform to help taxpayers. Meanwhile, the ACLU works closely with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council on prison reform, even though the two groups are opposed on a whole host of other issues like civil rights and immigration.
The bipartisan push probably made it a little easier for Attorney General Eric Holder to announce that the Justice Department wouldn’t enforce mandatory minimums for most nonviolent offenders.
The federal government also had the benefit of seeing that violence didn’t erupt in states that started putting fewer people away.
As Price said, states have shown the U.S. government that “incarceration doesn’t line up with public safety.”
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