The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).
Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.
Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.
And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.
The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.
"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."
Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.
"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."
Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.
"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"
It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.
"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 majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."
As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.
"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.
Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.
"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.
But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.
Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.
"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.
The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.