Sensible sentences: One-size-fits-all justice doesn't work

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U.S. prison populations have more than quadrupled over the last 40 years, partly due to rigid and irrational mandatory minimum sentences. As the world's leading jailer, the United States locks up 2.3 million people, costing states billions of dollars a year.

Fueled by get-tough-on-crime policies, the nation's race to incarcerate has drained government coffers without demonstrably affecting crime rates.

A bipartisan bill introduced by one of the Senate's odd couples, liberal Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and libertarian conservative Rand Paul, R-Ky., would allow federal judges to bypass mandatory minimum sentences, if certain conditions are met, including standards for public safety and fairness.

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would not compel judges to hand down more lenient sentences; when they do, it would require them to publicly state why they did.

As a smart, common-sense approach to justice, this bill acknowledges that the circumstances of crimes are not identical. Judges should reflect those differences in their sentences. In fact, that's what they're paid to do.

Mandatory minimum sentences -- a one-size-fits-all model -- serves neither justice nor the taxpayer. Giving judges greater flexibility would result in a fairer, more cost-effective system.

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