WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul reintroduced legislation this week aimed at restructuring the criminal justice system by loosening the enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences, which have contributed to America’s unprecedented incarceration rate.
The odd duo of Leahy — a Vermont Democrat — and Paul — a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky — illustrate the broad coalition of lawmakers that have come to support criminal justice reform in recent years.
“When we require that judges sentence offenders to years, sometimes decades, longer than is needed to keep our communities safe, it comes at extraordinary costs,” Leahy said in a statement. “An outgrowth of the failed War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing strips critical public safety resources away from law enforcement strategies that actually make our communities safer. It also comes with a human cost, particularly for communities of color.”
In his remarks, Paul agreed, saying “mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies.”
The two-page bill, entitled the Justice Safety Valve Act, would grant judges more sentencing discretion, allowing for the consideration of various factors, like a defendant’s criminal and mental health history, as well as addiction.
The legislation, which was also introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House, would reduce federal prison spending, which currently makes up roughly a third of the Department of Justice’s annual budget. Those moneys would be redirected to boost victim services and direct more resources to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The Leahy-Paul bill is a rebuke by both parties of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ draconian crackdown on crime. Last week, Sessions — who served in the Senate until earlier this year — directed more than 5,000 U.S. attorneys to pursue the most serious charges and maximum sentences in their cases. Since taking the helm of the Justice Department, Sessions has reversed many Obama-era policies aimed at scaling back the War on Drugs.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Obama between 2009 and 2015, presided over an agency that pursued mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes at the lowest rate on record. In his final months in office, Obama also commuted the sentences of thousands jailed for low-level drug offenses, a move Paul commended in a conference call Thursday.
Paul went on to acknowledge Sessions’ divergent approach on crime, saying, “I don’t think the attorney general is sympathetic” to the bill.
During the last congressional session, a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Leahy, introduced a sweeping criminal justice reform bill. That legislation, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, racked up a whopping 36 co-sponsors, including some of the most conservative Republicans in the chamber.
The bill would not only loosen mandatory minimum sentences, it would change the prison system to focus more on rehabilitation in hopes of reducing recidivism rates.
“This legislation is modeled after successful Texas reforms that have rehabilitated prisoners, reduced crime rates, and saved taxpayer dollars,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in introducing the bill. “This bipartisan package will protect law enforcement’s ability to aggressively target violent criminals and serious offenders, while focusing on justice, rehabilitation, and public safety.”
Despite the resistance to the bill last session from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, key senators are looking to reintroduce the bill this session.
Many of today’s most draconian sentencing practices come from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a bill passed under President Bill Clinton with broad bipartisan support. That bill pumped $9.7 billion into funding for prisons and also included a “three-strikes” provision that gave out life sentences to anyone convicted of three offenses, including drug crimes.
The 1994 law spurred a spike in arrests, and today, more than 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated — the highest level in the world. While America represents roughly 4 percent of the world’s population, it houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Leahy supported the 1994 crime bill, as did U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who was then serving in the House.