Sentencing Bill Passes Key Test

Senate panel votes to cut mandatory penalties.

, The National Law Journal

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Hands of incarcerated men at D.C.'s Superior Court.
Hands of incarcerated men at D.C.'s Superior Court.

"If you look back, as I have, at the debate on mandatory minimums, the goal was to nail the kingpins and break up these drug cartels," said Durbin, who introduced the legislation with Lee and Leahy. "What we've learned is the laws do not sufficiently separate the big-time career offenders from lower level offenders."

The legislation is not without opposition. Several Republican senators voted against the bill, and it might need changes to satisfy Democrats who fear losing some of the tools prosecutors use to take down gang and drug enterprises.

For example, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) voted to move bill out of committee despite expressing reservations. He said mandatory minimum sentencing helped reduce crime in New York City and that the potential for a mandatory prison sentence can prod a low-level drug mule to testify against higher-ups in a gang or drug ring.

"Many prosecutors are worried they may no longer be able to use this tool effectively," Schumer said.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) voted against the bill. Grassley said the number of people in federal prison for simple drug possession is near zero, and the supposedly nonviolent drug offenders the bill addresses are mostly drug dealers.

"Maybe they used no violence in committing this particular crime," Grassley said. "But maybe their co-defendant carried a gun in committing this drug offense. Or maybe this drug offender committed violent offenses in the past. That violent past is relevant to the sentence the drug dealer received."

Senators on both sides of that disagreement said they would continue working on the bill before submitting the measure to a vote by the full Senate. Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said it would be a mistake for Congress to water down the reforms into something negligible.

"I think we're seeing the most momentum on this issue that we've seen in 15 years, and it's really encouraging because it's bipartisan," Gill said. "What's nice about the issue is different people can care for different reasons, and all the reasons are good reasons."

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.

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