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Old Drug Warriors Mukasey and Bennet Urge Senate to Scrap Sentencing Reform

05/16/2014 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

Former leaders within the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Agency, including Michael Mukasey and Bill Bennet, have written a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asking them to defeat the Smarter Sentencing Act.

The signatories claim that "many of us once served on the front lines of justice."

Response to the letter has been both swift and sardonic. From Radley Balko at the Washington Post:

Ah, the "front lines." Apparently, Bill Bennett (one of the signatories) wasn't just feeding quarters into Vegas video poker machines as he demanded that other people go to prison for their vices . . . he was also ducking sniper fire.

The Smarter Sentencing Act has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 13-4 vote, and on May 7, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told John Gramlich of CQ Roll Call that he would soon be bringing the bill to the floor of the Senate for debate (paywall):

Asked whether he intends to bring committee-approved sentencing legislation to the floor soon, Reid said he has been consulting with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and "the answer is yes."

The Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half many mandatory minimum sentences, as well as make recent legislation that closed some of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine retroactively applicable to those sentenced under the old system.

The group joins Michelle Leonhart, current head of the DEA, who came out against the bill earlier this month (although she apparently got a stern "talking to" and has dialed it back since then).

Many of the signatories to the letter have had a hand in making the United States the biggest prison state in the world, with 5% of the population and 25% of its prisoners. The US prison population has quadrupled since the 1980s, and almost half of those in federal prison are there for drug related crimes.

"We believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety," according to the letter.

Others disagree. "The truth is "tough" mandatory sentences have helped pushed federal prisons to nearly 140 percent of capacity resulting in scarce law enforcement resources being diverted to cover growing prison costs" says Matthew Mangingo in the Rockford Register Star.

It's hard to know how to know what the impact of the letter will be. Does it represent, as Doug Berman notes, "the final nail in the Smarter Sentencing Act's coffin," or is it a sign that there is enough momentum growing behind the bill that the group is finally taking it seriously?

At the very least it signals a conservative war over sentencing reform, which pits younger, more libertarian leaning Republicans like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul against the old drug warriors.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a bill whose time has come

There are nearly 7 million Americans in prison, jail or under government supervision right now. It's time to put aside partisan differences and come together to help millions of people who have lost the power to advocate for themselves.

What can you do to help?