Updated 5:10 p.m.
The Senate push to reform mandatory minimum sentencing law began Wednesday with a photo opportunity: Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stopping for an uncharacteristically long chat before a hearing, right in front of media cameras.
With support for reforms to mandatory minimum sentences already coming from the Obama administration and the federal judges, Leahy and Paul wanted to show that their branch of government has bipartisan support for their bill filed in March.
"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," Leahy, who co-sponsored the bill with Paul, said at a hearing on the Safety Valve Act. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s policy announcement last month—directing prosecutors not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences in certain drug cases—is "an encouraging step," but won't reach many cases, Leahy said today. The Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to give federal judges the ability to impose prison sentences shorter than the mandatory minimums they're required to impose.
"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act."
Leahy also is co-sponsoring a companion bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, which also has bipartisan support and was introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
"We cannot afford to stay on our current path," Leahy said Wednesday. "Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution – it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."
The U.S. Judicial Conference released a letter Wednesday afternoon from U.S. District Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chair of the conference, lending "strong support" to the effort to reform mandatory minimums. The conference has "consistently and vigorously opposed" mandatory minimums for 60 years, the letter states.
But in the partisan Senate, not much seems to come easy. "I just don’t know why we can’t come together and do something about this," Paul said while testifying about the Safety Valve Act.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the rush to change mandatory minimum sentences is ignoring how the original law in 1984 addressed disparities in the criminal system.
Judges no longer could treat defendants differently, even unintentionally, when they were from different races or socio-economic status. "No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said.
Grassley blamed the U.S. Supreme Court for overriding Congressional intent and making sentencing law advisory. He also criticized President Barack Obama, saying the Justice Department and administration officials are citing the cost of prisons as part of the push for mandatory minimum sentencing reforms.
"So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley said.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said the fact that the system is in crisis is a myth, and crime is down all over the country.
"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said in written testimony.
This article was updated to correct a description of the Safety Valve Act.