Bills may cut mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes

Two bills currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee and at least one in the House of Representatives -- all bipartisan -- are taking aim at our nation's current sentencing policy. In particular, the three proposals seek to curtail the cost and injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing in federal crimes.

"There's a new era of bipartisanship on this issue," says Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz who, in partnership with several Democrats, has introduced a sentencing reform bill in the House. That bill would offset lengthy mandatory minimum sentences by letting some prisoners to earn credits that would allow them to serve out their sentences in halfway houses or in house arrest.

The two Senate proposals would expand an existing reform called the "safety valve," which was instituted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the group responsible for the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, in 2011. After several federal judges had openly called mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent, first-time drug offenders manifestly unfair, the commission put the "safety valve" in place to allow judges to bypass the guidelines in limited circumstances.

To open that "safety valve" further, liberal Democrat Richard Durbin and Tea-Party Republican Mike Lee have co-sponsored a bill to make more people eligible for the bypass. Currently, the "safety valve" only applies to people convicted of a small group federal drug crimes and who essentially 1) have no criminal history, 2) used no weapons or violence and caused no serious injuries, 3) were not in a leadership role in a drug enterprise, and 4) cooperated fully with law enforcement. The Durbin/Lee bill would expand the list of drug crimes allowed in the program.

Tea Party Republican Rand Paul and Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy would go even further. The Paul/Leahy bill would expand the "safety valve" to allow judges to bypass mandatory minimum sentencing in federal crimes besides drug offenses. Those eligible would still have to meet certain conditions, such as being low-level, nonviolent offenders.

This new spirit of bipartisan reform is based on principles all sides can agree with, according to the Huffington Post. Many of these sentences are clearly unjust, federal prison costs have ballooned to some $6.8 billion a year, and about half of those incarcerated there are drug offenders.

"There are smarter, cheaper ways to deal with this than what we've been doing," said Chaffetz. "And we have no choice."

Source: The Huffington Post, "Congress Looks To Relax Mandatory Prison Terms," Henry C. Jackson, Sept. 17, 2013

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