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Push To End Mandatory Minimums Makes Strange Bedfellows


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

On Capitol Hill today, a rare acknowledgement from lawmakers that they are partly to blame for the country's crowded prisons. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, opened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this way.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: We must reevaluate how many people we send to prison and for how long.

SIEGEL: Leahy wants to dial back the long prison sentences that Congress approved during the war on drugs and he's got some surprising allies.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: To hear some members of Congress tell it, the U.S. prison budget itself represents a threat to public safety. That's because the huge bill for housing more than 200,000 federal inmates means less money for prosecutors and the FBI.

Senator Richard Durbin is a Democrat from Illinois.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: If we're going to continue to push money into the correctional field, it's at the expense of money that would otherwise be spent for law enforcement.

JOHNSON: Durbin says he doesn't want to eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences. But he does want to give judges the power to lower them in nonviolent drug cases. About half of the people currently in prison got sent there because of drugs. Most of them are minnows caught in an enormous federal net.

A pair of Tea Party Republicans, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, share that concern. Paul has partnered with Democrat Leahy on a sentencing reform bill. Paul says the current system is not just expensive, it's also unfair.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white. But three-fourths of the people in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino.

JOHNSON: The highest ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Iowa's Charles Grassley, feels differently. Grassley suggests more mandatory minimum sentences are in order for financial crimes and child pornography. But that view is now edging out of the mainstream. Even some former prosecutors are on board for a sentencing overhaul, pointing to work already done in states like Texas, Ohio, New York and South Carolina.

Brett Tolman was a U.S. attorney during the George W. Bush administration.

BRETT TOLMAN: The states are our pilot programs. The federal system is very juvenile in its administration of criminal justice and should be learning from the states.

JOHNSON: Tolman says current federal laws place too much emphasis on the volume of drugs someone's caught with.

TOLMAN: We often refer to it as the Snicker bar case, because if you have a Snicker's bar size of methamphetamine, for example, you are invoking a mandatory minimum. And so I don't think there's an appreciation for some of the unintended consequences of being very reliant on quantity.

JOHNSON: There are real personal consequences too. Relatives of people serving long mandatory minimum sentences filled the Senate hearing room. Some of those families traveled as far as Montana and Utah and they held up pictures of their loved ones to bear witness.

Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, talked about one man who's serving decades in prison for selling marijuana. Some prison time is in order Leahy says...

LEAHY: But 55 years? He'll be in prison until he's nearly 80 years old. His children, only five and six at the time of the sentencing, will be 60 years old.

JOHNSON: On Tuesday, the top policy making group for federal judges announced it would push Congress to enact mandatory minimum reforms. Those changes could save money and put judges back in charge of deciding whether a specific criminal poses a risk to the public.

But the growing calls for change leave some prosecutors uneasy. Scott Burns leads the National District Attorneys Association.

SCOTT BURNS: With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes? Why now? As we are getting even smarter on crime with programs like drug courts and 24/7 and Project Hope as carrots, why would we take away one of our most effective sticks?

JOHNSON: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has thrown his weight behind sentencing reforms. He'll try to explain that Thursday when he delivers a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.