Law & the Courts

No More Jailbreaks

(Cineberg/Getty Images)
Republicans should oppose Democratic efforts to reduce or soften sentencing for drug crimes.

Last year, for the first time in American history, more than 100,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdoses and homicides. This deadly contagion of crime continues to afflict our communities and even shows signs of worsening. Yet politicians in Washington plan to reduce federal sentences for criminals and release thousands of drug traffickers and gang members back onto the streets.

Recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved several bills that would take criminal leniency to new extremes and public safety to new lows. These bills would shorten sentences for heroin and fentanyl traffickers, grant early release to thousands of drug dealers, expand house arrest for drug kingpins, and prohibit judges from taking into account certain past criminal activity in sentencing. Unwise even in a normal year, this salvo of pro-crime policies will exacerbate record-high overdose deaths and violent crime.

Some Senate Judiciary Committee members are also pushing a badly misnamed bill, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, which would retroactively reduce prison sentences for convicted crack-cocaine traffickers and force prosecutors to treat crack- and powder-cocaine-trafficking equally. Not all illegal drugs inflict the same damage on society, and we shouldn’t treat them as though they do. However, if activists demand equality, we should increase sentences for powder cocaine to match crack sentences, not reduce sentences on crack to match those for powder cocaine.

Senate Democrats additionally want to make permanent a temporary coronavirus policy that sent 4,500 “at-risk” federal prisoners to spend their prison sentences at home. Unsurprisingly, the federal government’s definition of “at risk” strained credulity, with ailments including asthma and obesity treated as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Extending this policy — especially now that every single federal inmate has been vaccinated or offered the vaccine for COVID-19 — betrays victims and law-enforcement agencies that trusted the federal government to keep convicted criminals away from the neighborhoods that the offenders once terrorized. Federal incarceration keeps notorious criminals far from their communities and thereby limits their capacity to maintain their criminal enterprises and their ability to intimidate victims and witnesses from the inside. Granting mass home release nullifies the advantages of federal incarceration and sets a terrible precedent that Senate Democrats would try to expand.

The Biden administration has a similar campaign of criminal accommodation under way and this month inexplicably proposed legislation to reduce sentences for trafficking in fentanyl analogues. Why should we grant leniency to some of the deadliest drug dealers in the midst of a spiraling opioid crisis, especially when it would encourage traffickers to distribute fentanyl instead of other drugs? Just two milligrams of fentanyl — the equivalent of a few grains of sand — can kill an adult, making it one of the most potent illicit poisons ever sold on the streets. Nevertheless, today’s Democratic Party can’t find a drug sentence that they don’t want to reduce.

This wave of proposed soft-on-crime legislation is the poisonous continuation of the First Step Act, which retroactively released serious drug traffickers, in particular crack dealers, and helped many career criminals avoid tough sentences. This legislation was a bipartisan mistake that Democrats believe they can build on in a 50–50 Senate. Republicans should not cooperate or compromise on this issue of life and death.

In 2018, I warned that the First Step Act was a jailbreak bill that would cause more crime and suffering in American communities. I was right. Since its passage in 2018, drug-overdose deaths have skyrocketed. In particular, cocaine-overdose deaths have surged over 30 percent to become the second-most deadly drug threat. The Department of Justice has also conspicuously refused to release recidivism data on First Step Act beneficiaries. Thousands of released drug traffickers undoubtedly contributed to last year’s massive upswing in drug deaths and the growing gang violence in our cities. This criminal-leniency law was a step backward in the administration of justice — and we should ensure that this first step is also the last.

For decades, the federal prison system delivered firm and effective sentences to drug traffickers and violent criminals. Indeed, our federal prisons stop the greatest menaces to society by keeping them away from the communities that they victimized. Soft-on-crime policies undermine these necessary institutions. For example, states and localities might reduce their cooperation with federal authorities if criminals are treated more leniently at the federal level than on the state level. This would hurt the American rule of law and render our federal prison system impotent.

Criminals do not respect or appreciate weakness; they exploit and abuse it. Leniency has once again failed, with truly heartbreaking consequences. It is time to get tough on crime, end the jailbreaks, and lock up the murderers and merchants of misery who have inflicted such harm on our nation. The crime wave will not recede until we do.

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