A bipartisan group in Congress is trying again to reduce mandatory minimum sentences after measures to enact that reform failed to come to a vote last year. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have reintroduced what they call the “Justice Safety Valve Act.”
Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) are reintroducing companion legislation in the House. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges and maximum sentences, returning to stricter enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences. The new proposal in Congress would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums cases based on mitigating factors.
“Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionally affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” Paul said.
Leahy said mandatory sentences come “with a human cost, particularly for communities of color, and results in a criminal justice system that is anything but ‘just.’ Our bipartisan approach offers a simple solution: Let judges judge.” The lawmakers complained that mandatory minimums force federal judges to issue indiscriminate punishments, regardless of involvement, criminal history, mental health, addiction, and other mitigating factors.
They said their proposal would reduce spending on prisons, which accounts for almost a third of the Department of Justice’s budget. This would allow the DOJ to focus more on victim services, state and local law enforcement, staffing, investigation, and prosecution, they said. Given Sessions’ opposition to similar bills when he served in the Senate, the Trump administration may fight the “safety valve” proposal.
In a conference call with journalists today, Paul conceded that sponsors of the bill would have an “uphill battle” getting the Trump administration to endorse it. He contended, though, without naming names, that the president’s advisers are divided on criminal justice issues and that some officials in the administration were sympathetic to the goals of the bill.
Paul said, “We will do what we can” with the Trump administration, but he believes there is enough support in the Senate to pass the “safety valve” bill.
Leahy, who worked with Sessions for many years in the Senate on sentencing issues, declared that the Attorney General was “wrong” in seeking to impose a “one size fits all” policy on prosecutors with his new guidance that they should seek to file the most serious charges in federal cases.
A former prosecutor himself, Leahy used the hypothetical of a car thief who crossed the Virginia-Maryland line and thus made his crime a federal offense. Federal prosecutors might be able to make the case into one carrying a maximum sentence of 3o to 40 years in prison, but “that doesn’t make any sense,” Leahy contended. “We have to be more realistic about charging and sentencing.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers are welcome to comment.