07.22.15

Leahy: Congress Must Address The Nation’s Exploding Prison Population This Year

“I consider ending mandatory minimums a moral calling”

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, July 22, 2015) – Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a former prosecutor, has long opposed mandatory minimums and advocated for comprehensive criminal justice reform.  Speaking before the Coalition for Public Safety on Wednesday, Leahy reiterated the need for Congress to tackle the issue of criminal justice reform this year.

“I began my career as a prosecutor on the front lines of our justice system,” Leahy said Wednesday.  “I know that mandatory minimums are not necessary. In fact, they are counterproductive.   They remove discretion from our criminal justice system.  It is that discretion that allows a drug kingpin to be sentenced differently than his unwitting girlfriend.  Congress removed discretion when it passed law after law imposing mandatory minimum sentences.  In a desire to be ‘tough on crime,’ we blindly assigned long, arbitrary terms of imprisonment.  This was a mistake.”

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee last Congress, Leahy led hearings on the nation’s exploding prison population and the challenges facing the Department of Justice as a result.  Under his leadership the Committee also approved the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill to lower nonviolent drug mandatory sentences.  Leahy joined with bipartisan cosponsors this year to reintroduce that measure as well as the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bipartisan bill that allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum sentence.

Senator Leahy’s full remarks are below. 

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee,
At the Coalition for Public Safety Event on Sentencing Reform
July 22 2015
As Prepared For Delivery

A few years ago, just down the street at Georgetown Law School, a student asked me what could be done to address the inequity in our criminal justice system.  I responded that it was clear to me that we had lost the war on drugs and it was time to admit it.

That “war” is largely responsible for the crisis our criminal justice system faces today.  And Congress played a major role in creating the problem.

For three decades, Congress turned to mandatory minimum sentences to answer every public safety concern.  The result is that we send more people to prison than any other developed country in the world.  This mass incarceration threatens our justice system’s fiscal health, effectiveness, and even its legitimacy. 

It is time to act.  Last year, as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I moved the Smarter Sentencing Act out of Committee and the Congressional Budget Office predicted that it would save $4 billion over the next ten years.  Unfortunately, the bipartisan measure was strongly opposed by a handful of Senators who prevented its passage.  But there is hope.  This year there are new voices joining the call for reform.  Seeing all of you here today gives me hope that finally we may be on the brink of action.  We have talked about this problem enough. 

One of the most important new voices is the Department of Justice itself.  Just last week I met with Deputy Attorney General Yates to talk about what we can do to reduce our exploding prison population.  She confirmed what many of us know from our own experience as prosecutors: Mandatory minimum sentences are not necessary to get defendants to cooperate.  Mandatory minimums as a tool of cooperation has been one of the strongest arguments against reducing mandatory minimums and the Department of Justice just turned it on its head.  In a letter sent to the Judiciary Committee earlier this week, more than a dozen former U.S. Attorneys from across the political spectrum and states across the country reiterated that mandatory minimums are costly and ineffective, and they called on Congress to do something about it.

I began my career as a prosecutor on the front lines of our justice system.  I know that mandatory minimums are not necessary. In fact, they are counterproductive.   They remove discretion from our criminal justice system.  It is that discretion that allows a drug kingpin to be sentenced differently than his unwitting girlfriend.  Congress removed discretion when it passed law after law imposing mandatory minimum sentences.  In a desire to be “tough on crime,” we blindly assigned long, arbitrary terms of imprisonment.  This was a mistake.  

I oppose mandatory minimums - all mandatory minimums.  I oppose them because the human cost is too great.  The evidence is clear – with mandatory minimums, too many people spend too many years in prison, more than either public safety or common sense requires.  Lives are wasted.  Families are torn apart.  And communities of color have been hit the hardest.

I oppose mandatory minimums because we cannot afford them.  More than a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget is now consumed by the Bureau of Prisons. This means less and less assistance for victims’ services and state and local law enforcement.

I oppose mandatory minimums because they are not necessary to keep us safe.  Crime and incarceration rates can fall together.  The Fair Sentencing Act is proving this.  And states around the country are proving this.

I consider ending mandatory minimums a moral calling.  No longer can we pretend that mandatory minimums promote fair punishment.  No longer can we pretend that one-size-fits-all sentencing is morally or fiscally sustainable.  We can and must do better.

Thankfully, we have a Justice Department that is working to address this problem.  I thank Eric Holder, and now Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates, for leading the Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative and for their commitment to reducing inequalities in our system. This is an important step.

But mandatory minimums are a problem that Congress created, and only Congress can fix.  I am heartened by the growing bipartisan agreement in Congress that we need sentencing reform. 

But what shape it will take will depend on your energy and our commitment to fix decades of misguided policy.  We must not squander this moment.  We must demand that the reforms be both measureable and meaningful.  Only then can we restore sanity to our sentencing policies and begin to end mass incarceration.  And only then can our justice system live up to its name.

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