Mandatory penalties, many of which require at least a decade in prison for drug offenses, took discretion away from judges and fueled a rise in prison populations, from 24,000 federal inmates in 1980 to more than 208,000 last year. Half of those inmates are nonviolent drug offenders, says the Washington Post. Federal prisons are overcrowded by 37 percent. The Justice Department has called mass imprisonment a “budgetary nightmare” and a “growing and historic crisis.” Politicians from President Obama to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) are pushing legislation to weaken mandatory minimums, but neither has persuaded Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who credits strict sentencing with helping reduce violent crime by half in the past 25 years.
The Post profiles federal Judge Mark Bennett, 65, in Grassley's home state. “Unjust and ineffective,” he wrote in one drug sentencing opinion. “Gut-wrenching,” he wrote in another. “Prisons filled, families divided, communities devastated,” he wrote in a third. In the methamphetamine corridor of middle America, Bennett has averaged seven times as many cases each year as a federal judge in New York City or Washington, D.C. He has sentenced more than 1,100 nonviolent offenders to mandatory minimum terms he often considered unjust. That meant more than $200 million in taxpayer money he thought had been misspent. Bennett has traveled to dozens of prisons to visit people he has sentenced, answering their legal questions and accompanying them to drug treatment.