Obama was right to commute sentences

Published on Thursday, 26 December 2013 20:50 - Written by

When President Barack Obama makes a mistake or is wrong about an issue, we’re quick to point out his errors. We should be just as quick to commend the decisions he makes that are right.

Last week, Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of crimes related to crack cocaine. He was correct to do so. Mandatory minimum sentences, established by the legislative branch in response to what seemed at the time to be an epidemic, were bad policy that upset the balance of powers and reduced local control — clear violations of the intent of the U.S. Constitution.

“President Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight people serving lengthy time for crack cocaine convictions, part of the administration’s effort to reduce what it views as ‘unduly harsh’ sentences for drug crimes and eliminate overcrowding in federal prisons,” the Washington Post reported. “Each of them had served at least 15 years and had been convicted prior to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which seeks to reduce the sentencing disparity between those convicted of crack and powder cocaine crimes, according to the White House.”

As he commuted those sentences, Obama said “In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime … Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.”

More importantly, and with implications for all of us, the action helped restore the balance of powers and local control.

First, the legislative branch certainly has a role to play in setting laws and outlining sentencing guidelines. But the judicial branch should not be shackled by sentencing guidelines that don’t allow for judges to tailor the punishment to fit the crime.

The three branches of government are supposed to be co-equal. Mandatory minimum sentences, set by the legislative branch, violate this principle — and the intent of the Constitution.

At the same time, such sentences are a violation of the intent of the framers of the Constitution to allow for local control. Local control is almost always best — officials at the local level are much more able to adjust policy for local realities. Federally imposed, top-down “solutions” are, by definition, one-size-fits-all approaches that often fail.

That may make for good politics, but it doesn’t make for good policy.

There are really two competing values here. One is a legitimate desire to be tough on crime. We need law and order, and conservatives have traditionally been proponents of those things.

But conservatives have also traditionally been proponents of less government. With mandatory minimum sentences, we see these values clash.

And in the end, we should prefer local control and a balance of powers. That’s because with local control, law and order can be preserved (though perhaps not as uniformly). But if we allow federal mandatory minimum sentences to stand, then local control and balance are dispensed with.

President Obama was right to commute those sentences. And we should rethink mandatory minimums at all levels.