No more costly mandatory minimum sentences

Recent rulings at the U.S. Supreme Court on gay marriage and Obamacare are high-profile reminders that there is not much the left and right agrees on in this country. But yet another new bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, introduced recently by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) with the support of almost two dozen other Republicans and Democrats, shows that one thing we do agree on is that this country locks too many people up for too long at too high a price.

The bill, the SAFE Justice Act (H.R. 2944), has a little bit of something for everyone, from mandatory minimum sentencing reform to getting a handle on the proliferation of federal crimes and regulations that can snare even the most well-intentioned citizens.

The increase in overly broad and vague criminal laws has enabled overzealous prosecutors to bring charges against Americans who inadvertently violate one of them. More often, however, government lawyers have aggressively pursued those acting in the gray areas between “business as usual” and unlawful activity.

White-collar suspects have become especially popular targets for prosecutors due to populist anger at Wall Street. Netting high-profile, corporate whales is a time-tested method for ambitious prosecutors to boost their political careers.

Independent federal judges are often the only hope white-collar defendants have to resist groundless charges when they are innocent and to avoid excessive punishment when found guilty. Last December, for example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals stopped cold the government’s effort to jail two hedge fund managers who had received information on the financial outlook for two computer companies from personal friends who worked there that the court found they had no reason to know was not public information.

Judges have also sought to restore some common sense and greater justice to white-collar sentencing. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, when drafting the first sentencing guidelines for judges, determined that corporate wrongdoers should be sentenced to short but definite prison terms. Economic crime offenders are less likely to reoffend than drug dealers and other street criminals, but the Commission thought prison time would deter others.