GOP Looks to Ease Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Guidelines

Image: GOP Looks to Ease Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Guidelines Sen. Rob Portman

Friday, 14 Mar 2014 11:02 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Mandatory minimum sentencing in the federal prison system is failing, leading Republicans claim as they look for solutions in red states that have passed laws to reduce prison populations and cut prison costs.

"It's a really inefficient use of resources — that's the Republican, fiscal conservative side of this," Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, an attorney who has long advocated recidivism reduction programs, told The New York Times

"Then on the other side of it is this: What do you end up with? You end up with broken families," Portman said. "You end up with communities that are being plagued with more violence and more crime. And you end up with people not reaching their God-given potential."

The changing Republican attitudes on early prison release is showing rare agreement with the Obama administration.

On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a plan to reduce prison sentences for people convicted of selling drug, and Republicans and Democrats are discussing combining two bills the Senate Judiciary Committee approved this year.

The bills call for giving judges more discretion to avoid mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, and to establish skills training and early release for prisoners considered at low risk for breaking the law again.

However, letting prisoners go free early is not meeting with approval in some places, including California, where Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown is releasing inmates sentenced to life in prison at a rate far higher than his predecessor to meet court-ordered limits on the inmate population.

The move is causing concerns among victim advocate groups about violent offenders returning to society.

Since Brown's election in 2010, about 1,400 inmates serving life sentences have been released from state prisons. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, released 557 lifers during his six years in Sacramento.

But there is still growing support for releasing lower-level prisoners early. Plans to reduce mandatory sentencing laws are meeting with rare bipartisan support as Republicans such as Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah align with liberal Democrat Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Cornyn, who is a former judge, said the changes in sentencing originated at the state level, where Republicans prefer such measures to develop.

But in Texas, which has traditionally had some of the more strict sentencing laws in the country over the years, the number of prisoners is now at its lowest point in a decade, reports The Times. Further, the state was able to close one prison in 2011, although the prison in the past had been crowded to the point it did not have enough space to house all its inmates.

"I’d like to say that people wanted to keep hope on the idea that people, once they committed crimes, could be rehabilitated and become productive citizens,” Cornyn said. "Actually, what I think happened, the more likely explanation, was that we built so many prisons people began to ask the question: 'Can we afford this?'"

Other Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, are pushing for even greater changes. Paul is drafting legislation to restore voting rights for nonviolent felons, while converting some drug felony charges to misdemeanors.

“I’m not afraid of appearing to be not conservative enough,” he said. Instead, he says black constituents have been telling him that criminal convictions were keeping them from voting and getting jobs.

"I don’t think most of the country thinks marijuana is a good idea," said Paul, "But I think most of the country thinks that if you happen to get caught doing it when you’re a teenager you should get a second chance."
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