Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a supporter of bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, said that even though Attorney General Jeff Sessions' sudden lurch rightward on mandatory minimums caught him off guard, nothing is going to stop the most libertarian Republican member of the Senate from trying to pass a lenient sentencing bill.
To that end, he and two of his Democratic colleagues have reintroduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow judges to sidestep mandatory minimum requirements if certain extenuating circumstances apply.
Still, Sessions' apparent change of opinion on sentencing is dismaying, said Paul.
"Really, it surprised me how much [Sessions] is going in the opposite direction," Paul told Reason in an interview.
Late last week, Sessions announced new instructions for prosecutors: he wants them to pursue the harshest possible sentence for a given crime. He said that federal attempts to change sentencing recommendations amount to "micromanagement from Washington."
As Reason's Matt Welch reported earlier, this came as a profound disappointment to Paul, who believes mandatory minimum sentences prevent judges and juries from exercising leniency in cases that merit it. On Friday, Paul released a statement criticizing Sessions' new approach, which will "accentuate that injustice," according to Paul.
Paul voted to confirm Sessions as attorney general, in part because he thought he had extracted certain guarantees from the former Alabama senator: that Sessions did not believe the president had the legal authority to authorize drone strikes against American non-combatants on U.S. soil, and also, that Sessions would not attempt to bring back harsh sentencing.
When asked if Paul would attempt to talk to the administration about harsh sentencing and dissuade Sessions from his new course, the senator explained that he believes the best option is the legislative one: Paul and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy (VT) and Jeff Merkley (OR) have reintroduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give federal judges more flexibility when it comes to sentencing.
"I don't think the attorney general is that sympathetic," said Paul. "I think the greater likelihood is getting enough momentum… if something made it out of the Senate in a bipartisan way."
Paul maintained that he has participated in conversations that give him confidence the president could support a reform bill like the Justice Safety Valve Act if it passed Congress.
"We could get the president to sign it," he said.
In an op-ed for CNN, Paul wrote:
I urge the attorney general to reconsider his recent action. But even more importantly, I urge my colleagues to consider bipartisan legislation to fix this problem in the law where it should be handled. Congress can end this injustice, and I look forward to leading this fight for justice.
For more about the damage wrought by mandatory minimums, go here.