What Brings Heritage Action and the ACLU Together?

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 9: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) speaks during press conference on Capitol Hill February 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) held the news conference to announce emergency legislation to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
National Journal
Elahe Izad
Add to Briefcase
Elahe Izad
Oct. 31, 2013, 4:06 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
Republican Polling Shows Close Race
Roundup: National Polling Remains Inconsistent
6 hours ago

The national polls, once again, tell very different stories: Clinton leads by just one point in the IBD, Rasmussen, and LA Times tracking polls, while she shows a commanding 12 point lead in the ABC news poll and a smaller but sizable five point lead in the CNN poll. The Republican Remington Research Group released a slew of polls showing Trump up in Ohio, Nevada, and North Carolina, a tie in Florida, and Clinton leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia. However, an independent Siena poll shows Clinton up 7 in North Carolina, while a Monmouth poll shows Trump up one in Arizona

Colin Powell to Vote for Clinton
9 hours ago
Cook Report: Dems to Pick up 5-7 Seats, Retake Senate
10 hours ago

Since the release of the Access Hollywood tape, on which Donald Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women, "Senate Republicans have seen their fortunes dip, particularly in states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania," where Hillary Clinton now leads. Jennifer Duffy writes that she now expects Democrats to gain five to seven seats—enough to regain control of the chamber.

"Of the Senate seats in the Toss Up column, Trump only leads in Indiana and Missouri where both Republicans are running a few points behind him. ... History shows that races in the Toss Up column never split down the middle; one party tends to win the lion’s share of them."

Clinton Reaching Out to GOP Senators
14 hours ago

If you need a marker for how confident Hillary Clinton is at this point of the race, here's one: CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports "she's been talking to Republican senators, old allies and new, saying that she is willing to work with them and govern."

Trump Admits He’s Behind
14 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.