In tremendously hopeful news, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which is extremely influential among Republicans in state legislatures, has endorsed model legislation to get rid of mandatory minimum prison sentences and give discretion back to judges.
The ALEC Board of Directors passed a version of the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in both houses of Congress to give judges discretion to reduce statutory minimum sentences that impose onerous sentences for a range of drug and other crimes, FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn told ThinkProgress. ALEC Legislative Director Cara Sullivan did not return an email inquiry from ThinkProgress. She did, however, tell the Daily Caller in an email response that the bill would help “ensure lengthy sentences and prison spaces are reserved for dangerous offenders, allowing states to focus their scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community.”
This language tracks a move in many states to implement “smart” criminal justice reform, motivated both by the onerous cost of bloated prisons and by recognition that over-criminalization does not benefit public safety. But the move is also a major reversal of course for ALEC, which previously supported mandatory minimum sentences that would apply regardless of whether the defendant was sentenced for possession, distribution, or cultivation. It also advocated for three-strikes laws that have since been toned down in most states, and developed a model “Truth in Sentencing” bill — passed into law in at least 25 states — that required every inmate to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, regardless of their rehabilitation or other factors.
According to Newburn, the organization has now altered its position and plans to eliminate mandatory minimum sentence from all or most of its model bills as part of a new Justice Performance Project, which appears aimed at reducing U.S. reliance on mass incarceration.
This is very encouraging. The conservative support for harsher and harsher sentences, and its general “tough on crime” stance has always resulted more from political expediency and historical contingency than from ideology. There are good conservative arguments against them and over the last few years we have begun to hear them articulated. I really hope this trend continues and I hope state legislatures start to pass laws to improve our criminal justice system. This is just a bare beginning, but it’s exactly what we need to get things done.