It Will Be Up To Congress To Change Automatic Sentencing

The Justice Department has called for prison sentencing reform — but it's really Congress that would have to carry it out. The time may be right: Crime is down, and even conservatives favor sentencing reform to save money.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. A quarter century ago, there was a nationwide crime wave fueled by crack cocaine. In response, congress passed dozens of laws imposing mandatory minimum prison sentences. Many of the offenses specified in the legislation were nonviolent. And since then, the number of federal inmates has grown nearly nine-fold. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced measures to limit mandatory minimums. NPR's David Welna reports, Congress is also taking a second look.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Attorney General Holder told a meeting of the American Bar Association that he'd instructed federal prosecutors to avoid bringing charges subject to mandatory minimum sentences for all but the most high level crimes. And he emphasized there's bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for doing so, as well.

ERIC HOLDER: Senators including Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Mike Lee and Rand Paul have introduced what I think is very promising legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders. Special legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars, while keeping us more safe.

WELNA: Those who advocate a rollback of mandatory minimum laws say it's a good thing Holder is looking to Congress for action. Molly Gill is an attorney with Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

MOLLY GILL: Attorney General Holder's memo to prosecutors is really a very minor fix. The real solution here has to be legislative. It has to be scaling back mandatory minimums, creating broader safety valves, maybe repealing some mandatory minimums. And only Congress can do those things.

WELNA: When Congress returns next month, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the Justice Safety Valve Act, co-sponsored by its chairman, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, and by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul. Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union says right now, mandatory minimums can be waived only for certain drug-related offenses.

JESSELYN MCCURDY: The safety valve legislation really opens up a lot more discretion for judges to be able to decide whether a person really deserves a mandatory minimum or not. And that's across the board. That's not just focused on drug cases.

WELNA: Another bill co-sponsored by two other senators, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee, would actually cut the length of mandatory sentences by half or more. The ACLU's McCurdy calls that a big change from the past.

MCCURDY: Five years ago, we couldn't even imagine the attorney general coming out and making a speech like he did on Monday.

WELNA: In part, that's because conservatives increasingly oppose the soaring costs of prisons. Vikrant Reddy, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the financial argument seems to be winning the day.

VIKRANT REDDY: There were a lot of states that faced budget deficits over the last several years. And you have the rise in the Tea Party movement, which said, look, no element of government is sacrosanct. We can't simply say that we're going to be critical of spending like comes to education or health care and, nevertheless, cut blank checks to the government when it comes to prisons.

WELNA: And Marc Mauer, who heads the sentencing project the Criminal Justice Reform Group, says bipartisan backing of the two bills is no small thing.

MARC MAUER: I think it could be both practically and symbolically very significant in showing that, yes, we can turn things around with no adverse affects on public safety.

WELNA: The biggest obstacle, Mauer says, is congressional inertia.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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