WASHINGTON – An unusual alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in the country’s mandatory sentencing laws.
What’s motivating them are growing concerns about both the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons.
The congressional push comes as President Barack Obama and his Cabinet draw attention to the issue of mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders.
Supporters say mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, lump all offenders into one category and rob judges of the ability to use their own discretion.
They also cite the high costs of the policies. The Justice Department spends some $6.4 billion – about one-quarter of its budget – on prisons each year and that number is growing steadily.
The push is being led by the Senate, where Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the Senate’s leading proponents of sentencing changes, has worked with tea party stalwarts such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on legislation that would give judges more
flexibility to determine sentences in many drug cases. At the same time, a right-left coalition is pressing for changes in the House.
Prison costs have soared in the past 30 years, when laws requiring mandatory prison time for many drug offenses were put in place.
The yearly cost for one federal inmate ranges from $21,000 to $33,000, depending on the prison’s level of security. About half of the nation’s more than 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes – and virtually all of them faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Tough-on-crime drug policies once united Republicans and Democrats who didn’t want to appear weak on crime. Now reversing or revising many of those policies is having the same effect. The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, drew bipartisan support for cutting penalties on crack cocaine offenses. The bill reduced a disparity between crack-related sentences and sentences for other drugs, though it only addressed new cases, not old ones.