Hearing Builds on Bipartisan Patrick Leahy/ Rand Paul Legislation and Attorney General Holder’s Recent Call for Federal Sentencing Reform
As Opposition to Mass Incarceration Builds, Mandatory Minimums Face Increased Scrutiny From Across Political Spectrum
WASHINGON, DC — Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from four conservative witnesses who have concerns with the continued use of mandatory minimum sentencing, a costly and counterproductive cookie-cutter approach that binds a judge’s ability to apply a meaningful sentence that will address the offense and provide for public safety. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mandatory minimums have significantly contributed to the overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons and drastic racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The BOP operates at nearly 140% capacity -- one-fourth of the Justice Department’s budget.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said there are too many people in prison and it is time for federal sentencing reform. In his remarks, Attorney General Holder encouraged a partnership between the legislative and executive branches to work to solve the issue. With less than 5% of the world’s population – but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population – the U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of its own citizens.
“Mandatory minimums are costly, unjust and do not make our country safer,” said Chairman Leahy, a former prosecutor, in his announcement of the hearing.
Set to testify Wednesday are Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who, along with Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, a bill that provides greater flexibility in sentencing for judges. Also testifying are Mark Levin, policy director for the Texas Center for Public Policy’s Right on Crime Initiative, former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman for Utah, and Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.
Momentum to reform mandatory minimums has picked up steam in recent years. In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which significantly reduced the racially unjust disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences and eliminated the first mandatory minimum penalty since the 1970s. This year, in addition to the Leahy/Paul bill, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee’s (R-UT) have also introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which affords retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act, reduces some mandatory minimum penalties, and expands judicial discretion. Last Congress, Sen. Paul was successful in opposing a mandatory minimum provision during a frenzied attempt to ban dozens of new synthetic drugs.
“It is time for Congress to take action on the issue that so many – stakeholders, editorial boards from coast to coast, and the public – agree on and end the draconian practice of mandatory minimum sentencing,” said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Reforming federal mandatory minimum sentencing would significantly alleviate overcrowding in the Bureau of Prisons and greatly reduce racial disparities in the federal system. Feeling the pinch of bloated prison budgets over the last several years, states like Texas and New York have saved taxpayer dollars by reducing incarceration and providing opportunities for individuals to rebuild their lives.”
Anthony Papa, media manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency from the governor, said, “Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for non-violent low level drug offenses. It’s a waste of tax dollars and human lives.”