The current political climate has led to all sorts of strange outcomes, such as a government shutdown. But it's also created strange bedfellows, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in alliances formed over reforming mandatory prison sentences.
A bill reducing mandatory minimum sentencing in certain nonviolent drug cases introduced this week by Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, speaks to the coalition-building among the Left and the Right. It mirrors a bill introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. The bill has received backing from groups as diverse as Heritage Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP.
A Senate committee held a hearing September on another measure from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which would give judges greater flexibility in departing from mandatory minimums when they sentence those convicted of federal crimes.
"That hearing was really illustrative of where we're at—you had a hearing called by a Democratic chair and you had three Republican witnesses on the panel, and essentially, at one point or another, all three witnesses are essentially saying the same thing," said Molly Gill, legislative counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The growing concern about mandatory minimums among those on the right opposed to excessive regulations and government spending and those on the left who have long been pushing for reform has enabled the issue to gain traction. It is especially noteworthy, given the wide partisan gap these days in Congress on many issues.
"Just with the sequester and the budget troubles and everything, money is a lot more important these days, and I think criminal-justice spending isn't this sacred cow it used to be," Gill said. "Now, there are no sacred cows. We have to look at everything, including this pool of criminal-justice money, and are we spending it wisely."
The federal inmate population has been on the rise. The population in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons grew by 13 percent between 2006 and 2012. The share of the Justice Department's budget that goes to the prisons has likewise grown; 15 years ago, 14 percent of DOJ's budget went to the bureau. For 2013, the prisons requested an amount that equaled 26 percent of the Justice Department budget.
Advocates also say mandatory minimums don't help reduce crime and that they disproportionately hurt the black community. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has said the Justice Department would seek to scale back pursuing mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders, has said "unwarranted disparities are far too common."
"Traditionally, the 'tough on crime' sound bite carries the day overwhelmingly," said Scott, a senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "And now, people are beginning to notice and beginning to consider what kind of impact that will actually have on crime, and is this a cost-effective way of dealing with crime."
Labrador, also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the intention is not to "be soft on crime. What we want to do is be smart on crime." The growing concern over civil liberties has also gained traction among those on the right.
"You have a younger crop of congressmen and women who also have some pretty strong civil-liberties ideas on the conservative side, where the issues of liberty and privacy have become quite important to some Republicans," Labrador added.
There are some on the Hill who still support mandatory minimum sentencing as essential to fighting crime, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. But the voices pushing back against reform aren't an overwhelmingly loud chorus.
Now that the House and Senate have identical bills in play, it becomes a question of time to move them through. The legislative calendar for the remainder of 2013 is short, but advocates want to see the meaasures move through the Senate by the end of the year.
This article appears in the November 1, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.
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