Leahy Vows Action This Year on Sentencing Overhaul

Post Date: November 7, 2013

(CQ NEWS) — Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said Wednesday that he will push for action on a proposed bipartisan overhaul of criminal sentencing laws before the end of the year.

“I’m committed to addressing sentencing reform this year, and I’m pleased by the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are joining in that effort,” Leahy said at a committee oversight hearing on the Bureau of Prisons.

The announcement marks the first time that Leahy has put a specific timeframe on the legislative drive to relax sentencing laws, which have become the focus of bipartisan concern amid a costly expansion in the federal prison population. It is not clear, however, which bill or bills will be the subject of a Judiciary Committee markup, or whether Leahy will seek Senate floor debate this year as well.

Leahy is a cosponsor of two separate bipartisan proposals related to sentencing.

One (S 619) would create a so-called “safety valve” that allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for all federal crimes, provided they consider certain factors such as whether a lighter penalty would represent a fair punishment and would not endanger the public. Under the plan, cosponsored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., judges also would need to issue a written explanation for their rationale in handing down a lighter sentence.

The other bill (S 1410), cosponsored by Leahy and Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, would take a narrower approach by slightly expanding an existing judicial “safety valve” for drug-related offenses. The bill also would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and allow crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (PL 111-220), even if their convictions pre-dated that statute, which reduced the disparity in criminal penalties between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

Separately, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is drafting his own legislation that would attempt to decrease the federal prison population by expanding alternatives to incarceration, rather than by overhauling sentencing law.

Cornyn’s plan takes a number of steps, including requiring the Justice Department to use existing funds to expand recidivism programs to all eligible federal prisoners within five years and enter into partnerships with nonprofit and faith-based groups to provide such services. A spokeswoman, Megan Mitchell, said Cornyn intends to introduce the legislation “in the coming weeks.”

Leahy has said he wants Republican support behind any sentencing overhaul, and lawmakers see a strong chance of bipartisan action.

“This is an area that has attracted broad and bipartisan interest within our committee, and I think there is real reason for optimism about being able to legislate effectively in this area,” Sen.Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Fears of More Crime

Despite the bipartisan momentum, the top committee Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, remains an obstacle for advocates of a broad sentencing overhaul. Grassley indicated again Wednesday that he is unlikely to go along with such a plan, even if Paul and some other senators in his party back it.

“We should be very careful about any actions we take in changing sentencing law, whether based on cost or other concerns,” Grassley said, adding that he is “concerned that we are hearing many of the same kinds of voices that headed us toward greater crime starting in the 1960s.”

Grassley left the door open to supporting more targeted changes in federal criminal punishment, such as releasing severely ill or elderly inmates from incarceration ahead of schedule. But he credited mandatory minimum sentencing laws with helping to reduce crime in recent decades.

“It is hard to think of another example of a more successful domestic policy accomplishment over the past 30 years than the reduction in crime rates,” he said. “This goal was achieved through multiple policy changes: policing techniques, prison construction, longer sentences and others.”

Another committee Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, also expressed concern about the effects of sentencing legislation on crime rates, noting that there has already been a recent “substantial increase” in violent crime.

“People do not need to go back to the time when we don’t think realistically about the value of prison in terms of reducing crime,” Sessions said.

Wide-Ranging Interest

The Senate effort comes as part of increasing interest in the issue across all three branches of government.

In September, the Judicial Conference of the United States, which includes Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and judges on lower federal courts around the country, announced that it would “seek legislation that would avoid the costs associated with mandatory minimum sentences,” singling out the Leahy-Paul measure as one vehicle to achieve that goal.

A month earlier, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the Justice Department would no longer prosecute many low-level drug offenders under mandatory sentencing statutes. Holder simultaneously praised bipartisan efforts in Congress to undo or mitigate those laws through legislation.

In the House, a Judiciary Committee task force, led by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is reviewing ways to address “over-criminalization” in the federal justice system, including by evaluating mandatory minimum sentences, even though Sensenbrenner himself remains skeptical about eliminating such laws.

By John Gramlich, CQ Roll Call

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