WASHINGTON — Concerns about both the fairness and the costs of cases where first-time offenders are given decades long mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes have been growing in Congress.
Now the issue is gaining new speed as an unusual coalition of tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats push for the largest overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines yet.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this week on minimum sentences. The committee is considering two bills, each sponsored by a liberal Democrat and a tea party Republican, which would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentences in many circumstances, particularly for some drug crimes. Today’s hearing is the first step in legislation that advocates and lawmakers in both parties say stands a chance of winning enactment by the end of the year.
The issue has made unlikely teammates of tea party libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a liberal Vermont Democrat. They’re co-sponsoring one of the two sentencing bills now before the committee. Co-sponsoring the other one are Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, another conservative championed by the tea party, and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, liberal Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois.
The four senators make similar cases for sentencing reform: Many of the sentences are unfair, prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent drug offenders, and it’s costing taxpayers too much money.