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Conservatives join push to roll back mandatory prison sentences

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FILE: Sept. 12, 2013: People tour the decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary, in Jefferson City, Missouri.

A grassroots effort to roll back mandatory prison sentences -- based on such conservative principles as less government and personal responsibility -- appears to be gaining momentum by winning changes in several states and following a similar trend in Washington.

The effort is being led in part by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which spearheaded efforts in 2007 to reform its home state’s criminal justice policy.

Those efforts, in turn, led several years ago to the foundation starting the Right on Crime Project.

The project has since been part of recent, successful efforts in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina to reform their systems through such changes as reducing penalties for low-level drug possessions; expanding the use of time- and cost-efficient drug courts; using money once earmarked for prisons to improve law-enforcement strategies and expanding community-based programs for offenders, including treatment.

Marc Levin, a lawyer and the group’s policy director, says the follow-up on parolees -- including electronic monitoring and home visits -- is just as important as changing the sentencing.

“You don’t just abandon the law after you’ve passed it,” he told FoxNews.com after testifying last month on Capitol Hill. “And if you have a drug court, you have to fund it.”

Such efforts come at the same time the Obama administration is moving in a similar direction, with Attorney General Eric Holder announcing last month that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” he said.

In making the change, Holder questioned the effectiveness of the country’s so-called “war on drugs,” which included tough, one-size-fits-all sentencing policies that date back to the Regain administration.

The U.S. prison population has increased by roughly 800 percent since 1980, with nearly 1 in every 100 adult Americans in jail or prison.

In addition, prison systems now cost states more than $50 billion annually, up from $11 million in the 1980s, according to Right on Crime, which has support from such conservative leaders as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese and tax reformist Grover Norquist.  

The group also argues another reason for reducing sentencing for low-level offenders is that those on probation can better provide restitution to victims, citing how Texas probationers several years ago paid $45 million to victims while prisoners paid less than $500,000.

Holder in his announcement also argued that unwarranted racial disparities in sentencing are “far too common.”

That issue also is being raised by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, co-sponsor of the bipartisan Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 that would allow judges to sentence offenders below the mandatory minimum in some felony drug cases.

“Each case should be judged on its own merit,” said Paul, the libertarian and potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, who cited the case of a man named Edward Clay who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of less than 2 ounces of cocaine, despite being a first-time offender.  

Levin, in testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the bill, said: “Just as we recognize that locking up violent offenders and international drug kingpins continues to make us safe, we must also follow the examples of many states that demonstrate utilizing more alternatives for low-level, low-risk offenders can lead to better public safety outcomes at a lower cost to taxpayers.”

Still, the bill, which is co-sponsored by Vermont Democrat and committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, has its critics.

 “We have to be careful not to legislate by anecdote,” said committee member and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cornyn. “We have all heard the legal horror stories.”