Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced legislation Wednesday that would give federal judges leeway to hand down lesser criminal penalties than those called for under mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The legislation (S 619) by Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Paul, a tea-party-backed libertarian, is intended “to prevent unjust and irrational criminal punishments,” according to the text of the measure.
“As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable,” Leahy said. “Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake. I am not convinced it has reduced crime. … It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them.”
Paul said mandatory minimum laws “reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates the bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer.”
The bill would apply to all federal crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Currently judges may depart from mandatory minimum sentences only for drug-related crimes.
While the measure would allow judges to be more lenient than the congressionally prescribed sentences, it would not require them to do so. Instead, the bill would offer judges a “safety valve” to punish offenders with lesser sentences if certain conditions are met.
Those conditions include assurances that judicial sentencing decisions will maintain public safety, impose a fair punishment for the crime, prevent sentencing disparities and serve as an effective deterrent. The bill also requires judges to state on the record why they have departed from mandatory minimum sentences.
“I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul have introduced a bill that recognizes one-size punishment does not fit all,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that lobbies for less restrictive sentencing policies and helped develop the proposal.
“The mandatory minimum sentences Congress chose might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving nonviolent offenders,” Stewart said. “By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders.”
Douglas Berman, a sentencing law professor at Ohio State University, said the politics surrounding crime and punishment remain sensitive on Capitol Hill. It will be difficult, he said, to win widespread support for a bill that effectively takes the “mandatory” out of mandatory minimum sentencing.
“The reality is that mandatory minimums aren’t really mandatory to begin with,” Berman said. That is because prosecutors often decide whether to pursue charges under mandatory minimum laws or lesser statutes, effectively shifting discretion from the judge to the prosecutor, according to Berman.
Although Berman expressed skepticism that many Republicans would sign on to the measure, he said Paul’s involvement is notable and that the legislation might be characterized in another way that could help build GOP support: “This is a way in which you can undercut the power of Obama’s prosecutors.”
Using States as an Example
Families Against Mandatory Minimums simultaneously released a report Wednesday evaluating how legislation similar to the Leahy-Paul measure has been implemented in eight states “as a way of reducing prison populations and saving money, while at the same time protecting public safety.”
The states that have adopted such proposals are Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oregon and Virginia.
FAMM is urging Congress to follow the example of those states, particularly as the federal prison population has grown rapidly and put a strain on correctional facilities and the Justice Department’s budget.
Federal prisons are at 138 percent of their capacity. The increasing number of inmates has caused alarm on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, and the Senate’s fiscal 2013 continuing resolution increases funding for the Bureau of Prisons by $141 million over fiscal 2012 enacted levels to help pay for salaries and expenses.
The spending bill also directs the Bureau of Prisons, a Justice Department agency, “to undertake a comprehensive analysis of its policies and determine the reforms and best practices that will help reduce costs and recidivism,” according to an explanatory statement released by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Leahy-Paul measure will be referred to the Judiciary Committee for consideration.