POLITICS: PennAve

Congress eager to move forward with sentencing reform

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Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive to law enforcement agencies Monday to ease charges on low-level drug offenders was relatively well-received from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.

Still, some Republicans saw it as another example of the Obama administration usurping the powers of Congress by legislating from the executive branch.

The move by Holder would diminish the impact of mandatory minimum sentences that remove judicial discretion in deciding punishment for drug-related crimes. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long seen problems in the one-size-fits-all approach.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety.”

Decades ago, Congress led the charge to force mandatory minimum sentences on non-violent offenders as the war on drugs escalated. But there has since been a bipartisan effort to step back from the tough-on-crime laws that filled the nation’s prisons at a major cost to communities and federal and state budgets.

Conservative Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, are co-sponsoring efforts led by Durbin and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to roll back mandatory minimums. The bills would give judges more power to decide sentences in drug cases involving individuals not linked to major crime organizations.

Paul said Monday he was encouraged by Holder’s announcement and Obama’s attention to the issue.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety,” Paul said. “I look forward to working with them to advance my bipartisan legislation.”

But even Republicans who agreed with the spirit of directive were unsettled that the effort is being led from the White House instead of Congress. Republicans similarly chided Obama last year for bypassing Congress and advancing immigration reforms by executive fiat.

“Attorney General Holder cannot unilaterally ignore the laws or the limits on his executive power,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. “We will be closely monitoring his efforts to ensure that the Obama administration does not attempt to exceed its constitutional powers once again.”

Other Republicans blasted the administration for coming late to the game.

“The attorney general’s comments today represent a newfound interest from this administration in prison reform, after five years of inaction and a poor record on reform, and despite members of Congress from both parties that have privately and publicly urged the attorney general to address this issue,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

Despite the rancor, there was a bipartisan commitment to the effort. Senate Democrats will hold hearings next month on the issue and Republicans have already established multiple task forces to review the country’s correctional system.

“The administration’s involvement in this bipartisan issue is a welcome development,” Paul said. “Now the hard work begins to change the law to permanently address this injustice.”

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