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Drug Case Judges Need Mechanism for Mercy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., believes that Congress is "about 10 years behind the public." So Paul said on "Fox News Sunday" as he argued against incarcerating marijuana users. Paul sagely suggested the Republican Party should employ such thinking to "appeal across the left-right paradigm."

Paul has put his money where his mouth is. Last week, Paul co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Their Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would grant judges greater flexibility in the federal mandatory minimum sentencing system.

"I think the American public would be shocked to find out that judges don't have the discretion," opined bill supporter Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Decades ago, in the name of going after drug kingpins, Congress passed laws with harsh sentencing guidelines that, if unintentionally, ended up condemning nonviolent offenders to obscenely long sentences.

Paul told Fox News' Chris Wallace that it is "a mistake to put people in jail for marijuana use and throw away the key" -- which actually doesn't happen in the federal system. To get a sentence of 10 years or longer, you have to possess 1,000 marijuana plants, not a joint. Nonetheless, that is a long time for a first-time offense, especially if it's thrown at people who run state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries.

On the other hand, the federal system does not simply go after drug kingpins. The old laws perverted the justice system so that career criminals who inform on others win reduced sentences -- sometimes sentences shorter than those applied to their underlings -- while the underlings serve overly harsh time.

"What passes for a drug kingpin in 99 percent of the cases is nothing more than a young man who can't even afford a lawyer when he's hauled into court," Patrick Murphy, U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Illinois, told "60 Minutes" in 2004.

As Leahy wrote in a press release, inflexible "mandatory minimum penalties can lead to terribly unjust results in individual cases."

Clarence Aaron was no kingpin, yet he is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent first-time drug conviction in 1993. The kingpin for Aaron's two large cocaine deals got out of prison in 2000. Another dealer is due for release next year. Yet unless he wins a presidential commutation, Aaron alone will die an old man in prison for a crime he committed as a young man. Sadly, President Barack Obama has used his commutation power only once -- and not for Aaron.

In 1994, Congress passed "safety valve" legislation to prevent such excess sentences for low-level drug offenses. The Leahy-Paul bill would expand the 1994 law.

As Washington postures to pass anti-gun legislation, voters might consider how mandatory minimum sentences for ostensible gun crimes have led to other abuses. In 2004, in Salt Lake City, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell proclaimed that he saw no "rational basis" for the law to require him to sentence a 25-year-old first-time drug offender to 55 years in prison on the same day he meted out a 22-year term to a man who had clubbed an elderly woman to death.

Granted, drug dealer Weldon Angelos owned guns and carried a concealed weapon during a marijuana deal, but he never brandished a gun; he didn't shoot anyone. Still, Cassell was forced to put Angelos away for twice the sentence given to a hands-on killer.

A free country doesn't imprison nonviolent low-level offenders for decades. There has to be a mechanism for mercy.

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