“This government is totally out of control,” Senator Rand Paul told the crowds at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. This is a common sentiment among conservatives.
What is uncommon about Senator Rand Paul, however, is he consistently leads with conservative principles above partisanship. This is true even when his principled positions produce strange bedfellows. Paul’s commitment to limited government, personal liberty, and restrained spending recently led him to team up with political polar opposite, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to introduce S. 619, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, a measure targeting a federal government program that has gone unchecked for decades.
The current federal prison system has experienced extraordinary increases in scope and cost over the past several decades. Unfortunately, public safety is not the clear beneficiary. Since 2000, the Bureau of Prisons’ budget has nearly doubled, to about $6.7 billion. That’s a full quarter of the Justice Department’s budget. In 1980, the federal prison system managed 25,000 inmates. Today, it manages 218,000 inmates. This means that the system is dangerously overcrowded and operating at 139 percent of its capacity.
This would be fiscally responsible if the scarce beds were filled with violent people who need to be separated for public safety. Instead, the prison system is unduly burdened with people serving unnecessarily lengthy sentences for committing nonviolent crimes. We should hold these individuals accountable to pay society back in a way that does not unjustly bleed taxpayers’ funding for room and board, air conditioning, and other incarceration expenses. As usual, the government has it backward and the costs in dollars and public safety are staggering.
Every year, Congress adds more, lengthier, one-size-fits-all punishments for entire classes of offenses, particularly drug and gun offenses. This incapacitates federal judges from punishing people according to relevant factors such as whether the offense was high-level or low-level, dangerous or nonviolent, and whether the offense was committed by a first-time or repeat offender. This sentencing scheme leaves taxpayers the victim by forcing them to pick up the tab for absurdly lengthy mandatory minimums that punish insignificant drug offenders as if they were kingpins.
The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would authorize federal judges to sentence people below the mandatory minimum term if doing so would protect the public, avoid unjustifiable sentencing disparities between similar offenders, or result in better rehabilitation or restitution to victims. The organization I lead, Justice Fellowship, applauds this measure, recognizing that smarter sentencing policy embodies Christian restorative justice principles that lead to increased public safety, more respect for victims and less repeat-offenders. Criminals should be punished, but justice is not always served through a mandatory minimum sentence.
“Our country’s mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the Constitutional Separation of Powers, violates our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer. This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties,” said Paul in reference to the introduction of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013. The cost savings that would result from reigning in unnecessary mandatory minimum sentences could put cops on the street or fund programs for prisoners that have been proven to reduce recidivism.
Skepticism of federal government programs and spending is a hallmark conservative custom. Conservative leaders successfully empower a movement when they are willing to apply conservative principles to issues that are uncomfortable – from abortion to cutting the deficit. When it comes to the federal prison system, conservatives have turned a blind eye to bloated government spending and overreach for too long. Senator Paul’s support of the Justice Safety Valve Act is a welcome demonstration of bold conservative leadership.
Craig DeRoche is the president of Justice Fellowship, the advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a nonpartisan Christian nonprofit organization that provides ministry and programs in over 1,000 state and federal prisons nationwide. DeRoche is the former Republican Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.