An unusual coalition of tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats is pushing for the most extensive overhaul of federal sentencing laws and guidelines that provide for mandatory minimum prison terms, reports the Associated Press. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today on two bills, each sponsored by a liberal Democrat and a tea party Republican, that would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentences in many circumstances, particularly for some drug crimes.
Attorney General Eric Holder last month told prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are co-sponsoring one sentencing bill; the other is co-sponsored by Mike Lee (R-Ut.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Il.) The senators make similar cases for reform: Many sentences are unfair, prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent drug offenders, and it’s costing too much. Prison costs have ballooned, with the Bureau of Prisons budget now at $6.8 billion, 25 percent of the Justice Department’s total. The yearly cost of housing a prisoner ranges from $21,000 to $33,000, and is steadily rising.