This week Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) reintroduced a sentencing-reform bill that would give federal judges more discretion in handing out punishments. As it stands, mandatory minimum sentencing laws require judges to sentence individuals in a paint-by-the-numbers way, with no regard for mitigating circumstances. Under Paul and Leahy's "Justice Safety Valve Act," existing mandatory minimum laws would remain intact, but federal judges would have the authority to ignore them, more or less.
A companion bill, which also has bipartisan support, was introduced in the House by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
Mandatory minimums were initially conceived of as a way to bring more fairness to sentencing: you do X crime, you get Y punishment, no exceptions. Deferring to the discretion of judges was seen as too risky, too rife with potential for bias. But in practice, mandatory minimums still reflect ample (racial, class, and cultural) biases, since lawmakers had to choose which crimes get mandatory minimums, and what those minimums would be. Unsurprisingly, drug-related offenses are among those most likely to come with harsh mandatory minimums (with crack users long subject to longer minimums than users of cocaine).
"These sentences disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe," Paul said.
They have done remarkably well at swelling federal prisions, however. "Since mandatory sentencing began, America's prison population has quadrupled, to 2.4 million," said Paul. "America now jails a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country due to mandatory minimum sentences."
Reforming sentencing laws is not only the right thing to do, it will save us money, according to Paul and Leahy. "This bill offers a simple solution. Get politicians out of the way and let judges judge," Sen. Leahy said.
But not everyone in Congress is enthusiastic about abandoning "tough-on-crime" policies and rhetoric. "It remains unclear if sentencing reform will gain enough traction to clear opposition from several prominent members of the Senate Republican Conference," writes David McCabe at The Hill.