U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) used the occasion of their receiving “Constitutional Champion” awards last night to criticize mandatory prison sentences and press for legislation they have authored to rein in federal prison terms. The senators spoke as they, as well as Twitter, Inc., were given awards by The Constitution Project, an advocacy group that works “to foster consensus-based solutions to the most difficult constitutional challenges of our time.” Both senators cited the high federal prison population, which is consuming about one-third of the Justice Department’s budget and preventing more money from being spent on such things as crime prevention and terrorism investigations.
Leahy, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee until Republicans took control of the Senate this year, contended that mandatory minimum sentences “have not made us safer…do not help us” and amount to “foolish, one-size-fits-all” penalties. Leahy said Congress should pass laws to help “restore sanity to the sentencing system.” Paul, a 2016 presidential candidate, declared that the U.S. “incarceration binge is out of control — it is time we fix it.” Paul called for repealing all mandatory minimum sentencing laws and returning to a system of judges’ using their discretion on sentences, which he and Leahy would do in their proposed Justice Safety Valve Act. Paul cited with approval last year’s passage of California’s Proposition 47, which reclassified many criminal laws into categories carrying lower sentences. Paul also cited an “undercurrent of unease” after last summer’s police killing of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., saying the episode suggested to many poor people that they “have no chance.” The Twitter firm was cited for resisting federal demands that it provide data to aid government surveillance of citizens.