Bipartisan Sentencing Bill a Moral Victory


Beltway bipartisanship is a dying art at best, and a cruel oxymoron at worst – a term on the fast track to joining the lexicon of nearly defunct American sociopolitical phrases such as safety net, social contract and moderate Republican. But all may not be lost; for from deep in the halls of Capitol Hill come rumblings of an honest-to-God, bipartisan, bicameral change for the greater good.

At first blush the reworked Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 (S. 353/HR 706) does not impress. Sponsored in the upper house by Sens Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and the lower by congressmen Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) the preamble is terse, the four paragraphs scant and the language homely.

But detractors of this small bill should not underestimate its potential for big impact; for if passed by Congress and endorsed by the Executive, S 353/HR 706 would loosen current mandatory minimum sentencing in all federal courts, giving those jurisdictions far greater discretion than at present.

Some background: the Act’s history is a study in the 1980s political zeitgeist crafted by the Reagan administration – an eight-year conservative golden age roundly considered the incubation period for today’s massive wealth disparity and unabashed corporate deregulation.

By the beginning of Reagan’s second term, the encroaching hard-line conservatism extended beyond supply-side economic theory to other pivotal issues of the day: Central American policy; unionism; church-state relations and: sentencing for federal crimes.

Time has proven how shortsighted were many Reagan polices; perhaps none more so than the stronger minimum sentencing stipulations known as “Tough on Crime” laws.

Key to this Republican plan was the nearly Nixonian fixation on incarcerating even nonviolent offenders – especially those convicted on drug-related charges – further influencing not only federal standards, but setting the stage for 24 state legislatures to adopt the equally misguided “Three Strikes and You’re Out” strategy that has clogged their courts and prisons since 1993. This impulse to reduce crime by widening the legal net was long ago proven wrongheaded. Despite the steady downward trends in violent and property-related offenses, incarceration rates more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2012.

When placed alongside two decades worth of similarly disparaging statistics, one can only wonder why it’s taken so long for lawmakers to call into question the knee-jerk legal practices so beloved by so many.

But whatever the excuses for delay, we should celebrate every time bipartisan leadership gels around an issue of substance and puts it before their colleagues – in this case the repeal of a bankrupt idea that has wasted immense resources and done untold harm. Only the politically naïve would suggest these reforms are a done deal, let alone the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But even if it’s only a practice run, this cross-the-aisle exception to party polarization is already a moral victory for the rest of us.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2015

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