Back in early 2015 it looked as though America might be on the verge of a rare moment for recent times, when leaders of both parties might come together to pass an important bipartisan reform. Over several years both the right and the left had reached a consensus that the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s had been overzealous and counterproductive. Politicians on both sides of the aisle were actually working together on the federal level to eliminate many such sentences, especially after data gathered in states like Texas and Georgia made clear that doing so could save governments money and reduce crime rates.
Mandatory minimum laws were mostly aimed at drug-related crimes and came about in a burst of emotional reactions to tabloid-style stories in the 1980s. Early in that decade the crack cocaine epidemic had everyone spooked, largely because opportunistic politicians stoked the story for political gain. The case that many people still remember is that of 22-year-old college basketball star Len Bias, who died of a cocaine-induced heart attack just two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. Facing a big midterm election, the Democrat-dominated Congress saw the public outcry as an opportunity to quickly push through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.