An unusual alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in mandatory sentencing laws, says the Associated Press. What’s motivating them are concerns about both the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons. Critics say mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, lump all offenders into one category and rob judges of the ability to use their own discretion. They cite the high costs of the policies. The Justice Department spends 6.4 billion, about one-quarter of its budget, on prisons each year, and that number is growing steadily.
“People are coming here for different reasons, but there is a real opportunity,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). Durbin has worked with tea party stalwarts like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), on legislation that would give judges more flexibility to determine prison sentences in many drug cases. At the same time, a right-left coalition is pressing for changes in the House. The yearly cost for one federal inmate ranges from $21,000 to $33,000 depending on the level of security. Half of the 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes, and virtually all of them faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing. Tough-on-crime drug policies once united Republicans and Democrats who didn’t want to appear weak on crime. Now, the Senate Judiciary Committee has four bills on the issue; chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), wants one consensus bill.