WASHINGTON – As he pursues changes in the setting of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has once again teamed up with an unlikely political partner: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an outspoken conservative who is a Tea Party hero.
As Leahy’s committee held its first hearing last week on a mandatory minimum sentencing reform bill Paul is sponsoring, Leahy expressed confidence that this unusual political alliance would bring about results.
“Sen. Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences,” Leahy declared at the hearing. “Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum.”
In a phone interview after the hearing, Leahy – who, at 73, is nearly a quarter of a century older than the 50-year old Paul – said the two often share views while working out together in the Senate gym. “I’ve joked over the years that there’s more legislation passed in the Senate gym than on the Senate floor,” Leahy observed.
Of his relationship with Paul – whose father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was once the Libertarian Party nominee for president – Leahy said: “People call it unusual political bedfellows, but I call it effective legislating. If more people would do what I’ve done, we wouldn’t have the [legislative] gridlock we now have.”
The mandatory minimum sentence bill is not the first time Leahy and Rand Paul have found common legislative ground.
In 2011, Paul co-sponsored a Leahy bill designed to make changes in the USA PATRIOT Act, which was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and features provisions that have been criticized from both ends of the political spectrum as overly intrusive. Paul was the only Republican among 13 cosponsors of that legislation.
Earlier this year, Paul co-sponsored the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act introduced by Leahy, and also co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the latter of whom – like Paul – is a Tea Party favorite. That measure, reported out of Leahy’s committee, would update the original law to cover digital era communications such as email.
However, the mandatory minimum sentencing legislation – introduced by Paul and co-sponsored by Leahy – has yet to attract other Republican backers. Among the remaining three current cosponsors of the bill are Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., along with Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Both Leahy and Paul contend that mandatory minimum sentences do not make the country safer.
“It is a problem that Congress created and that Congress must fix,” Leahy said
Under current law, a federal court can only impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in cases of low-level drug offenses. The Paul-Leahy bill, entitled the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would give judges more flexibility in departing from mandatory minimums.
Meanwhile, Leahy also has co-sponsored a bill introduced by another unusual political couple: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lee. Unlike the Paul-Leahy bill, the Durbin-Lee bill, dubbed the Smarter Sentencing Act, would only lower certain mandatory minimums involving non-violent drug-related offenses.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month that the Justice Department would no longer list quantities in bringing drug charges, so that defendants without ties to gangs and large drug-traffic organizations could avoid mandatory minimums.
Holder’s announcement was praised by both Leahy and Paul. Leahy said in a statement that he was “encouraged” by the Justice Department’s involvement in this issue. And Paul, a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, called the Obama administration’s involvement in mandatory minimums sentences a “welcome development.”
“Since mandatory sentencing began, American’s prison has quadrupled, to 2.4 million,” Paul told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “America now jails a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country, at the staggering cost of $80 billion a year.”
Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that now is an appropriate time to discuss mandatory sentencing reforms, in light of Congress’ on-going consideration of how to cut government spending.
Stewart believes that Paul’s participation in reforming mandatory minimum sentencing has strengthened the conversation between the two parties.
“He adds a new level of conservative concern about sentencing and how it has wasted enormous amount of tax dollars,” Stewart said. “He makes it safer for other Republicans to come together and share their concerns. “
But there is hardly unanimity within the Republican ranks.
In a recent Senate floor speech, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, contended that increased incarceration has reduced crime. He also charged that the U.S. Supreme Court “overrode congressional intent and made the guidelines advisory.”
Gibed Grassley: “I do see that for the first time in five years, the Obama administration has finally found one area of federal spending that it wants to cut: prisons.”
This piece was published on Times Argus on Sep. 28, 2013.