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Unusual coalition of senators urges reform of mandatory minimums

Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

With federal prisons already more than 30 percent beyond their designed capacity, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons, an unlikely group of U.S. senators has come together to try to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are joining up with U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. When the group held a joint news conference last week, they joked and laughed, “There isn’t a moderate here, on either side.” 

The moment was in sharp contrast to earlier when Durbin and Cruz found themselves on opposing sides of the ongoing impasse over a GOP plan to make funding for the Department of Homeland Security contingent on eliminating funding for the president’s recent executive orders on immigration.

It is both the human tragedy and fiscal reality of mandatory sentencing laws that have brought the group togetherThe group agrees that mandatory minimum sentencing laws have caused the federal prison population to skyrocket, with about half of those behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.  The group also says many of those individuals are serving disproportionately long sentences.

“Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety," said Durbin. "Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

The number of inmates being sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses combined with the length of those prison terms puts a strain on resources. 

“Billions of dollars that could be spent to prevent the commission of crimes and to make certain that we have the most effective prosecution sadly is put into long and lengthy sentences, which really don’t square up with the offense,”  added Durbin. 

To illustrate this point, Durbin told the story of Eugenia Jennings, a mother of three, who “on her third offense selling crack to buy food for her children was arrested, convicted and sentenced to over 20 years in prison — over 20 years, for selling what in fact was a handful of crack.”  In 2011, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to time served.  Not long after her release, Jennings died of cancer.

With Republicans now in the majority, Lee has become the lead sponsor of the bill, which was previously introduced by Durbin in past congressional sessions. 

“Our current federal sentencing laws are out of date, they are often counterproductive, and in far too many cases in Utah and around the country, they are unjust,” said Lee. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a commonsense solution that will greatly reduce the financial and, more importantly, the human cost imposed on society by the broken status quo. The act will give judges the flexibility and discretion they need to impose stiff sentences on the most drug lords and cartel bosses, while enabling nonviolent offenders to return more quickly to their families and communities.”

Even with this array of co-sponsors, the measure may face a challenge getting out of committee. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has expressed reservations with the legislation, but Durbin and the others say they believe that they have the numbers to move the bill.  They also say, if necessary, they will consider attaching the measure to other pieces of legislation.

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