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 Izadi
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.

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