Time To End Mandatory Minimum Sentences

by Patrick Leahy

(Following are the remarks of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) at The Bipartisan Summit On Fair Justice on July 22 on Capitol Hill.  Leahy, a former prosecutor and long a leader on criminal justice reform, has partnered with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in authoring and introducing their bill to end mandatory minimum sentences.)

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.  Beyond that, I noted that our criminal justice system was in crisis.  For three decades, Congress turned to mandatory minimum sentences to answer every public safety concern.  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.  For years we have talked about this crisis and we have worked on solutions.  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 this year there are new voices joining the call for reform, giving me hope that finally we may be on the brink of action.    

I began my career as a prosecutor on the front lines of our justice system.  The most powerful tool that a prosecutor has, and that judges have, is discretion.  Discretion is key because it allows prosecutors and judges to take into account the individual circumstances involved in a case.  But Congress removed much of that 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 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 oppose mandatory minimums because the human cost is too great.  Mandatory sentencing leaves no room for compassion, redemption—and even culpability.  Our laws often fail to distinguish between low-level and serious offenders.  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 consider this 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 now 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.

Yet 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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