“Razor wires.” Credit: Flowizm.

May 17, 2017; Washington Post

Criminal justice reform advocates all over the country have cause to celebrate for a moment today as a bipartisan group of senators filed legislation that is in clear opposition to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent order to federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible charges, and by extension, sentences for defendants accused of criminal acts.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT).

“Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” said Paul. “As this legislation demonstrates, Congress can come together in a bipartisan fashion to change these laws.”

“An outgrowth of the failed War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing strips critical public safety resources away from law enforcement strategies that actually make our communities safer,” said Leahy.

As the Justice Safety Valve Act is introduced in the Senate, a companion bill is being readied for the House. It will be sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Not only would the legislation provide greater latitude to federal judges on sentencing, it would reduce correctional spending under the Department of Justice.

“Attorney General Sessions’ directive to all federal prosecutors to charge the most serious offenses, including [those that trigger] mandatory minimums, ignores the fact that mandatory minimum sentences have been studied extensively and have been found to distort rational sentencing systems, discriminate against minorities, waste money and often require a judge to impose sentences that violate common sense,” Scott said.

Sessions opposed a similar bill that very nearly passed a few years ago, and Paul says he fully expects push back from the current administration.

Last week, following Sessions’ order for the longest possible sentences, an editorial in the N.Y. Daily News predicted this kind of response from Congress:

In his odd, antediluvian manner, is Attorney General Jeff Sessions doing the country a favor? In the short term, no, but quite possibly in the long term—if, sparked by the AG’s retrograde criminal-justice instincts, members of Congress finally grow the courage to fix inflexibly punitive federal drug laws that intelligent Republicans and Democrats alike now disavow […] and—this gets us to the unintentional favor Sessions may be doing the country—lay bare the racially tinged schizophrenia of a nation that increasingly seeks to get treatment to opioid addicts, even as it recommits to tough punishment against other drug users and small-time dealers.

That the Department of Justice has now returned to a drug-war footing should spur the bipartisan coalition that championed reform a year ago to reassemble, with renewed sense of mission.

Congress can’t change the AG. But it can and should change the laws.

—Ruth McCambridge