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Senate Judiciary Committee approves bill slashing federal mandatory minimum sentences

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 11:00 p.m. MST

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill slashing federal mandatory minimum sentences Thursday, with some key Republicans allied with Democrats. The bill was cosponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL).

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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In yet another signal that the war on drugs is losing momentum, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill slashing federal mandatory minimum sentences Thursday, with some key Republicans allied with Democrats. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) co-sponsored the bill, which would reverse decades of long prison sentences for drug offenses and could retroactively reduce sentences for some crack cocaine offenders.

Crack sentencing has come under strong scrutiny because sentences for that drug, more often consumed by African-Americans, have been harsher than comparably serious drugs consumed by whites, such as heroin.

"Since the 1980s," notes the Drug Policy Alliance, "federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms."

Acknowledging that disparity, Congress passed and the president signed a bill in 2010 that reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine mandatory sentences. But those reductions were not made retroactive.

On the day of the Senate vote, U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General James Cole signaled that the Obama administration would use clemency powers to reduce excessive sentences on its own. Cole delivered a speech Thursday to the New York State Bar Association asking lawyers and prison officials to compile commutation requests for those serving long terms for nonviolent, low-level offenses.

In December, President Obama commuted the prison terms of eight crack cocaine offenders, six of whom were serving life terms without possibility of parole.

Family matter

First enacted in the 1980s and 1990s as part of an effort to snuff out drug abuse and drug dealing, the federal sentencing guidelines tied the hands of judges, resulting in extremely long sentences in many cases, often over the vigorous objections of the judges themselves.

Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, said Lee’s interest stems from his time as an assistant U.S. attorney. “He saw firsthand how having a second or third relatively minor drug offense could result in a massive sentence that destroyed a family,” Phillips said. Lee’s interest also stems partly from his libertarian sympathies, but was largely driven from a family focused social conservative perspective, Phillips said.

The bill did not go in its current form as far as many had hoped. Earlier this year Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) had co-sponsored a measure that would have essentially removed mandatory minimums altogether by allowing judges to diverge from them when they saw fit. That bill went nowhere, and both Leahy and Paul supported Thursday’s compromise legislation.

Tougher still

Part of the compromise involved amendments that, paradoxically, would actually enhance mandatory minimums for sex offenses, domestic violence and terrorism. Lee opposed those amendments, Phillips said, because he felt the bill’s purpose was to reduce unduly severe sentences.

But the toughening amendments did not go far enough for Lee’s Utah colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was one of the five to vote against the bill in committee.

“The bill that passed the Judiciary Committee today is too expansive,” Hatch said in an email. He objected to the retroactive sentence reductions, fearing these would not be adequately vetted for risk.

“I also have concerns that cutting certain mandatory minimum standards could weaken incentives that are valuable in criminal investigations,” Hatch said, but said he hopes he can “work with my colleagues to make the bill better before it comes up for a vote before the full Senate.”

Disappointed but hopeful

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