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Leahy-Paul Bill Would Relax Federal Sentencing Laws

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Paul said mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach.

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced legislation Wednesday that would give federal judges leeway to hand down lesser criminal penalties than those called for under mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The legislation (S 619) by Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Paul, a tea-party-backed libertarian, is intended to prevent unjust and irrational criminal punishments, according to the text of the measure.

As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, Leahy said. Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake. I am not convinced it has reduced crime. ... It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them.

Paul said mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates the bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer.

The bill would apply to all federal crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Currently judges may depart from mandatory minimum sentences only for drug-related crimes.

While the measure would allow judges to be more lenient than the congressionally prescribed sentences, it would not require them to do so. Instead, the bill would offer judges a safety valve to punish offenders with lesser sentences if certain conditions are met.

Those conditions include assurances that judicial sentencing decisions will maintain public safety, impose a fair punishment for the crime, prevent sentencing disparities and serve as an effective deterrent. The bill also requires judges to state on the record why they have departed from mandatory minimum sentences.

I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul have introduced a bill that recognizes one-size punishment does not fit all, said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that lobbies for less restrictive sentencing policies and helped develop the proposal.

The mandatory minimum sentences Congress chose might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving nonviolent offenders, Stewart said. By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders.

Douglas Berman, a sentencing law professor at Ohio State University, said the politics surrounding crime and punishment remain sensitive on Capitol Hill. It will be difficult, he said, to win widespread support for a bill that effectively takes the mandatory out of mandatory minimum sentencing.

The reality is that mandatory minimums arent really mandatory to begin with, Berman said. That is because prosecutors often decide whether to pursue charges under mandatory minimum laws or lesser statutes, effectively shifting discretion from the judge to the prosecutor, according to Berman.

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