We need California's conservative leadership now more than ever. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy should take on federal drug sentencing reform.
Introduced in both chambers, the bipartisan bill is the biggest overhaul of federal drug sentencing in decades. It restores fiscal constraint, fairness and faith in our criminal justice system by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for specific nonviolent drug offenses. The bill gives judges greater discretion in sentencing. More than 60 percent of federal district judges believe mandatory minimums for all offenses are too high.
In Congress, the bill will soon appear before the full Senate. However, it's stalled in the House. It's time for House leadership to step up.
Although conservatives promise fiscal responsibility and government accountability, our drug sentencing laws fail on both counts. It's common knowledge that harsh sentencing policies became federal law in the 1970s after a widespread spike in crime. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. prison population rose by 700 percent, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion annually.
Violent crime has declined dramatically, but not because of harsh sentences. Studies consistently show that mandatory minimums do not correlate with a reduction in crime. University of Minnesota law professor Michael Tonry explored years of data and found that mandatory penalties neither deter crime nor dissuade illicit drug use. Closer to home, while California enacted tough-on-crime laws, New York did the opposite. Both saw a massive reduction in violent crime.
We also know that our national drug laws have a terrible underbelly: race.
The sad truth is that blacks and Latinos are no more likely than whites to use or sell drugs, yet they are more likely to be prosecuted for drugs and imprisoned longer. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, mandatory minimums have contributed to prison overcrowding and racial disparities.
More than half of federal prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders. Families in these communities are being torn apart, building the likelihood that more adults will end up breaking the law.
For the first time in years, politics is driving criminal justice reform. Democrats want fairness. Republican governors want to curb wasteful spending on the issue. It's no coincidence that Texas is a leader on sentencing, parole, and probation reforms.
Nationally, the tide is turning too. Since 2000, 29 states have implemented sentencing reform laws. The Vera Institute of Justice announced that a majority of states have adopted sentencing reforms over the last decade.
The White House has also weighed in. President Barack Obama is planning a mass pardon of many nonviolent drug offenders. The administration has ordered federal prosecutors to curtail mandatory minimums. And Attorney General Eric Holder instructed his staff to hold off drug prosecutions that trigger automatic harsh sentences. But it's not enough. Congress must act.
Now California's congressional delegation rarely agrees. Yet as the largest in the nation, it has potential to drive change. Darrel Issa sits on the powerful Judiciary Committee and chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Kevin McCarthy is part of House Republican leadership.
As Washington quibbles, states are pursuing fair, proportional punishment. The nation has responded. Before elections consume Washington, House Republicans need to look beyond their parochial interests and follow the real leaders of their party. The people all agree: America's cruel and nonsensical drug polices must come to its final end.
Vijay Das grew up in Danville and is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. Das recently worked on social policy reforms in the U.S. Senate and administered gang violence programs for the mayor of Los Angeles. Follow him at Twitter.com/vijdas.