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

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President Obama took another step by commuting the sentences of eight individuals who were sentenced under the outdated sentencing regime."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manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”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.