Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws

Post Date: March 3, 2014

(New York Times) — Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The two men are unlikely allies. Their partnership unites the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

While a range of judges, prosecutors and public defenders have for years raised concerns about disparities in punishment, it is this alliance that may make politically possible the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs.

In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to reduce the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.

For Mr. Holder, addressing sentencing laws is central to a second-term agenda that also includes defending voting rights and same-sex marriage. Black Americans have disproportionately received lengthy prison terms and are extremely overrepresented in the inmate population.

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime.

“This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around.

“I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious.

Republicans have historically been proponents of crime legislation, but low crime rates have given proponents of a sentencing overhaul an opening.

“It makes it much less likely that people are going to be attacked as soft on crime,” Mr. Holder said in an interview last week, “which is why we very consciously styled our efforts as being smart on crime.”

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah.

Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department.

“I understand what hearings are like,” Mr. Holder said. “They’re as much theater as they are substance. The conversation we had over that breakfast was really about substance. When it comes to substance, there’s a basis for agreement between a Democratic attorney general and these Republican congressmen.”

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration. Read more