WASHINGTON – Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told PJM that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “made a mistake” when he advised federal prosecutors to pursue the “most serious” charges in their respective cases.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Sessions’ sentencing policy is “sending us in the wrong direction.”
“By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions wrote in a memo to assistant U.S. attorneys.
Leahy and Paul were asked if they agreed with Sessions’ decision.
“I think Jeff Sessions has really made a mistake. He’s saying one size fits all,” Leahy said in response to a question from PJM on a conference call last week. “Basically, Attorney General Sessions said no matter what the case is, whether you’ve got a kid with a pocket full of drugs or you’ve got a drug dealer with a pocket full of drugs, hit them with the same charge. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Sen. Paul said the San Jose Mercury News looked at 700 cases involving people in similar circumstances accused of a similar crime and found that white individuals were “far more successful” in plea bargains during “virtually every stage” of pre-trial negotiations compared to African-Americans and Latinos.
“So I think there might be something to do with money, resources and connections that allows you to get a different deal no matter what you’re charged with, but it is crazy to charge a teenager who happened to be in a car and his buddy is the guy that has the drugs but now he’s been charged with conspiracy just because they can,” Paul said on the conference call. “So, there’s always discretion on the part of prosecutors. Our focus is discretion to judges, but also we don’t want to tell prosecutors you always have to charge the longest potential terms.”
Paul said it’s wrong to sentence a teenager to 10 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense.
“When you put someone in 10 years you are basically giving up on them. When they get out, can they be employed again, and is it fair to put someone in 10 years for a drug crime that didn’t involve violence? And there’s example after example, so people who think it’s not a problem, that it’s working out just great with mandatory minimums, aren’t paying attention,” he said.
Leahy agreed with Paul’s assessment.
“During that 10 years, the taxpayers spend between $200,000 and $300,000 with that person in jail,” he said.
Leahy and Paul would like to see the Senate pass the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would authorize a federal court to “impose a sentence in a criminal proceeding that is below the minimum sentence required by statute if the court finds that a lower sentence is necessary to avoid violating statutory factors that the court must consider in imposing a sentence.”
Paul was asked if the legislation would apply to certain individuals who have already been sentenced.
“The bill is not retrospective. I’m not opposed to that, but the bill currently looks forward not backwards, and with regard to direction from the attorney general, it doesn’t always work but it tends to have a great deal of weight,” Paul said.
“I think [former Attorney General Eric] Holder’s recommendation probably influenced a great deal of prosecutors to not think that their goal was to try to get people life in prison for 10 different drug offenses instead of charging them with the one that would get a more responsible sentence, so I think it did have an effect. Sessions, I think his policy will have an effect and I think it’s sending us in the wrong direction,” he added.
Leahy said he expects a “heavy lift” to get the bill to the president’s desk.
“That’s why we don’t have retroactive. I’d be delighted if it was retroactive, but let’s get it through and then we can talk about those kinds of things. I think Jeff Sessions is doing what he’s said before he might do. I think he’s wrong. I think we have to be more realistic on both the charging and the sentencing. We know what doesn’t work, so let’s start trying to do something that does work,” he said.