‘We cannot afford to stay on our current path’: Senate Begins Debate Over Mandatory Minimums

Matt Stroud

In the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder’s suggested shift against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the U.S. Senate today began its long discussion over how that suggestion might might be carried out.

From the BLT:

The Senate push to reform mandatory minimum sentencing law began Wednesday with a photo opportunity: Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stopping for an uncharacteristically long chat before a hearing, right in front of media cameras.

With support for reforms to mandatory minimum sentences already coming from the Obama administration and the federal judges, Leahy and Paul wanted to show that their branch of government has bipartisan support for the effort.

Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences,” Leahy, who co-sponsored the bill with Paul, said at a hearing on the Safety Valve Act. Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum.”

And more from ABC News yesterday:

Sentencing reform lands in an area of rare common ground between liberals and conservatives. Just a few years ago, it was an issue shunned by many politicians in both parties, lest they be labeled soft on crime.

Now it’s made unlikely teammates of tea party libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a liberal Vermont Democrat. They’re co-sponsoring one of the two sentencing bills now before the committee. Co-sponsoring the other one are Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, another conservative championed by the tea party, and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, liberal Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois.

The four senators make similar cases for sentencing reform: Many of the sentences are unfair, prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent drug offenders, and it’s costing taxpayers too much money.

Prison costs have ballooned in the past 30 years, with the Bureau of Prisons budget now around $6.8 billion, or about 25 percent of the Justice Department’s total. The yearly cost of housing a federal prisoner ranges from $21,000 to $33,000, depending on the prison’s level of security, and is steadily rising.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world with more than 1.5 million prisoners in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, including more than 218,000 federal prisoners. About half of federal prisoners are drug offenders, nearly all of whom faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Keep an eye on this one. It’ll be interesting to see what shakes out.

Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
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