When President Barack Obama spoke in his final State of the Union, he did not do what is typical and offer a laundry list of policies that he wants Congress to enact in his final year. He must have realized that with a Republican House and Senate, such pleas would fall on deaf ears. But he did make one specific request in his opening lines — send me a criminal justice reform bill to sign. In a world of partisanship and dysfunction, this is the one thing that Congress could actually achieve this year.
During my time as an assistant U.S. attorney in Nevada and a deputy district attorney in Las Vegas, I prosecuted thousands of cases — white collar crime, fraud and violent crime. With drug offenses though, the length of the sentences left me troubled. Mandatory minimum sentencing was approved by Congress in the 1980s and ’90s, ramping up its approach to the War on Drugs. These sentences meant that the judge had no discretion in a drug defendant’s case, and I watched as many individuals were sent away for decades for trafficking small amounts of drugs. They should have gone to prison — but 15 years for a small amount of heroin? That’s too much.
Equally troubling to me is that prosecutors use these minimum mandatory drug laws, which were meant to be used against illicit drug dealers, against medical doctors. While overprescribing medication is a serious problem, it is not a problem that will be fixed by sending doctors to prison for a minimum of 10 years.
Minimum mandatory sentencing gives the prosecutors too much power. By charging a crime that carries a minimum mandatory sentence, the prosecutor has power over when to charge, what to charge and what the sentence will be. It takes away from the sentence being determined by a neutral and unbiased judge.
Such sentences devastate communities, leaving children parentless, and drain our budget — locking someone up can cost millions of dollars. Our national mass incarceration problem has become an international embarrassment, with the U.S. representing 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
Fortunately, times and attitudes have changed. Most people recognize that as we approach our country’s drug issues, we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem. Instead, we must take the resources we have used to lock up people up for huge amounts of time and invest them in treatment, re-entry and diversion.
Nevada has some experience with criminal justice reform. In 2007, the state repealed mandatory sentencing enhancements and expanded “good time” eligibility for certain offenses. And just last year, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill to end life without parole for juveniles.
But we also need nationwide criminal justice reform, and we need our federal representatives to stand up and be counted. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act moving through the Senate. It would reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and reform prison programming. It is spearheaded by tough-on-crime legislators such as Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, a surefire sign of shifting opinions on criminal justice reform. It stands a good chance of reaching the president’s desk, and there is no reason why Nevada’s congressional delegation — there is a similar bill moving through the House — shouldn’t stand up and be counted.
As President Obama begins his final year in office, we have a unique opportunity to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform. I urge our lawmakers to get on board with this approach and create a more just system for Nevadans and Americans alike.
— Nathan Crane served in the White House under George W. Bush’s drug czar. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Nevada and as a deputy district attorney in Las Vegas. He currently practices law in Utah.