Republicans and Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee came together on Thursday morning to pass a landmark bill aimed at overhauling the federal government’s drug sentencing laws. Those laws, adopted by the U.S. at the height of the anti-drug fervor of the 1980s, have helped make the United States prison system the largest in the world.
The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced last summer by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah), would reform the nation’s mandatory minimum statutes, which require judges to impose fixed sentences on people convicted of drug offenses, even when the judges deem those sentences excessively severe.
The bill would shorten such sentences, while also giving judges more authority to use their own discretion in doling out punishments. And it would allow thousands of current inmates to return to court to seek fairer sentences in accordance with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a measure that reduced the vast sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes.
The bill passed by 13 votes to 5. Every Democrat on the committee supported it, and they were joined by three Republicans who style themselves as libertarian-leaning conservatives in the Tea Party mold: Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another Tea Party favorite, also sponsored the bill, although he does not sit on the committee. At a committee hearing in September, he surprised observers by likening mandatory minimum statutes to the racist policies of the Jim Crow era, signaling a conservative shift on the tough-on-crime policies championed by Nixon and Reagan.
"The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white," he observed at the hearing, "but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino."
“The injustice of mandatory minimum sentences is impossible to ignore," he added.
The bill is now due for a vote on the Senate floor. Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that supports the proposal, said he expects it to pass.
“The House will be a challenge,” he conceded, “but with strong Tea Party support on the Senate side and an array of conservative advocacy groups lined up in support, it is doable.”
The federal prison population has climbed by 500 percent in the last three decades. As the number of inmates has soared, so has the cost of keeping them behind bars. The federal Bureau of Prisons requested $6.9 billion last year alone, more than a quarter of the Department of Justice’s total budget.
“Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety,” argued Sen. Durbin in a statement when he and Lee introduced the bill last summer.
Judges, he added, “should not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”
Update: 5:33 p.m. -- In a statement released after the committee passed the bill, Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement of support:
"I applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for passing the Smarter Sentencing Act with broad, bipartisan support. This important, common-sense legislation would provide judges with more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain low-level federal drug crimes," Holder said. "By ensuring that the most severe penalties are reserved for serious drug traffickers, we can reduce unfair disparities in our criminal justice system and reduce the burden on our overcrowded prison system. It is my hope that the Senate will adopt this measure without delay."