Debra J. Saunders

"Mandatory sentences breed injustice," Judge Roger Vinson told the New York Times. A Ronald Reagan appointee to the federal bench in Florida, Vinson was railing against a federal system that forced him to sentence a 27-year-old single mother to prison life without parole because her dealer ex-boyfriend had stored cocaine in her house.

Note to D.C. Republicans: This would be a great time to take on the excesses of the war on drugs.

The Times was writing about conservatives, including Jeb Bush and former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, who advocate for smarter, more humane incarceration policies under the rubric "Right on Crime." In light of the GOP's need to woo more young voters, drug-war reforms offer an ideological good -- limited government -- and also might be politically savvy. Think: Ron Paul and his rock star status on college campuses.

Two areas cry for immediate action.

One: Sentencing reform. The single mother, Stephanie George, had prior drug convictions, which contributed to her draconian prison term. Even she says that she deserved to do time, but not the rest of her natural life.

What's more, her costly incarceration won't do anything to dry up the nation's drug supply or scare kingpins straight. Career dealers, like George's ex-boyfriend, who was released five years ago, know how to game the system and reduce their sentences by testifying against amateurs and patsies who think they can win at trial. As the judge explained, the guiltiest parties "get reduced sentences, while the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences."

When the federal government imprisons small-time criminals for life, the system grows too costly and too ineffective. It embodies the definition of big government. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt found that American penal policies decreased crime in the 1990s. Since then, incarceration rates have risen so steeply that Levitt told the Times he now thinks that the prison population -- more than 2 million people are in prison or jail -- could be reduced by a third. If he's even half right, Washington should act.

President Obama was critical of mandatory minimums before he was elected to the White House. But he has failed to use his presidential power to pardon as he should. Obama has commuted only one sentence to date, and right now, a commutation is George's only hope of release.

Julie Stewart, who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums, knows Democratic and Republican politicians who have issues with the war on drugs. Congress should not wait on the White House to enact sentencing reform; GOP members should lead the way.

Debra J. Saunders

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