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Holder Wants Tea Party Senators’ Help to Stop Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing

“Our criminal justice system works only when all Americans are treated equally under the law," attorney general says in a message to Congress.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

January 23, 2014 - 5:10 pm

WASHINGTON — Name-dropping a couple of key Tea Party senators, Attorney General Eric Holder today implored Congress to quickly pass reforms that would give the judicial system more power to override mandatory minimum sentences.

“Our criminal justice system works only when all Americans are treated equally under the law,” Holder said in his videotaped message.

“That’s why, in 2010, Congress passed the landmark Fair Sentencing Act, marking the culmination of persistent efforts – with the leadership of President Obama – to reduce unjust disparities in sentencing for similar offenses involving different types of drugs,” he continued. “More recently, President Obama took another step by commuting the sentences of eight individuals who were sentenced under the outdated sentencing regime.” The 2010 law evened out the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

At the Justice Department, Holder said, they’ve used the Smart on Crime initiative “to ensure that individuals accused of certain low-level federal drug crimes no longer face excessive mandatory minimum sentences that are out of proportion with their alleged conduct – and serve no deterrent purpose.”

“These reforms have the potential to help make our criminal justice system not only fairer, but also – by reducing the burden on our overcrowded prison system – more efficient,” he said.

Holder specifically asked Congress to pass “common-sense reforms like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act to give judges more discretion in handing down sentences for federal drug crimes and to let some offenders petition judges for sentence reductions.”

The bill promoted by the attorney general was introduced at the beginning of August by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), not a pair seen together on many bills.

The two claim that the sentencing discretion for non-violent drug offenders could save taxpayers billions of dollars in the few years after enactment.

“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

Co-sponsors of the bill are Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Over the past three decades, Durbin and Lee noted, the number of inmates in federal prisons has shot up 500 percent with disproportionate impact on minority populations, due in large part to lengthy mandatory sentences for drug crimes.

The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity with more than 50 percent overcrowding at maximum security facilities. Nearly half of the more than 219,000 federal inmates are there for drug charges, at a tab of nearly $30,000 per year to house a single prisoner.

Durbin and Lee’s bill, which is in Leahy’s committee, has attracted support as diverse as Heritage Action and the ACLU.

Companion legislation in the House was introduced at the end of October by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho). It has 15 bipartisan co-sponsors.

“Thanks to the leadership of Senators Durbin and Lee – along with Chairman Patrick Leahy and Senator Rand Paul – it’s clear that these and similar proposals enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill,” Holder said.

“These reforms would advance the goals of the Smart on Crime initiative – and other efforts that are currently underway – by fundamentally improving policies that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, key criminal justice challenges,” he added. “And such legislation could ultimately save our country billions of dollars in prison costs while keeping us safe.”

In September, Paul testified before the Judiciary Committee that arrests under mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been so lopsided “because it is easier to go into urban areas and make arrests than suburban areas.”

“If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected young black males.”

“…It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that it’s easier to round up, arrest and convict poor kids than it is to convict rich kids.”

Paul said sentencing reform is needed as America’s prison population has quadrupled since mandatory minimums began.

“We are not repealing mandatory minimums on the books – we are merely allowing a judge to sentence below a mandatory minimum if certain requirements are met,” Paul said. “There is an existing safety valve in current law, yet it is very limited. It has a strict five-part test and only about 23 percent of all drug offenders qualified for the safety valve.”

He highlighted one case where a judge had to sentence a 19-year-old to 10 years for conspiracy. “This young man had been in a car where drugs were found,” Paul said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure one of us might have been in a car in our youth where someone might’ve had drugs. Before the arrest, this young man was going to be the first in his family to go to college.”

“Mandatory minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives.”

Two weeks ago, Lee pitched the bill in an email to supporters while taking a dig at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for letting such bills fall by the wayside while pushing through the big spending agreements with limited debate or amendments.

“An alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in the country’s mandatory sentencing laws. I have been working with Senator Durbin to build bipartisan support for reforming our country’s mandatory sentencing laws through a proposal we have introduced. Senators Paul, Leahy, Cornyn, Portman, and Whitehouse have also introduced proposals to address this problem,” Lee said.

“Do you think Senator Reid should allow more votes on smaller pieces of legislation like these proposals that enjoy bipartisan support and that are passed through regular order through the committee process, or do you think the country is better served by Congress passing last-minute deals that are thousands of pages long with very little time for public scrutiny?”

Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.

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