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President Jed Bartlet joins public debate over sentencing reforms

By Colby Itkowitz for The Washington Post

Former President Jed Bartlet, the fictional president Democrats pretended was running the country in the 2000s, appears in a new public service announcement urging Congress to take up the issue of mandatory sentencing for drug-related crimes.

Bartlet’s been out of office since 2006, but like many past presidents, he is weighing in on a policy issue. Brave New Films, a left-leaning media company, released a 3½-minute video on YouTube Tuesday with the title: “President Bartlet has a message for Congress.”

Played by Martin Sheen, Bartlet says the country’s goal should be to have a “justice system that avoids unnecessary incarceration and irresponsible spending.” Disparities in criminal sentencing is a focus of the Obama administration’s Justice Department. Just Monday the White House said it was considering clemency for federal inmates serving for drug offenses. The Senate moved a bill through committee in January to scale back mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes.

This is not a new issue for Bartlet. Fans of “The West Wing” may remember a Season 1 episode was called “Mandatory Minimums.” In an episode, Bartlet says, “Ten years ago, we spent five billion dollars fighting drugs, and we did such a good job that last year, we spent 16 billion. Sixty percent of federal prisoners are in jail on drug charges as opposed to 2½ percent that are there for violent crime. We imprison a higher percentage of our citizens than Russia did under communism, and South Africa under Apartheid. Somewhere between fifty and 85 percent of the prison population has a drug or alcohol abuse problem. We’ve tried just say no; I don’t think it’s gonna work.”

More than a decade later, here’s Sheen as Bartlet addressing the same issue: