The Ottumwa Courier

AP National

January 6, 2014

Push for sentencing changes underway in Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — An unusual alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in the country's mandatory sentencing laws.

What's motivating them are growing concerns about both the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons.

The congressional push comes as President Barack Obama and his Cabinet draw attention to the issue of mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders.

Supporters say mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, lump all offenders into one category and rob judges of the ability to use their own discretion.

They also cite the high costs of the policies. The Justice Department spends some $6.4 billion, about one-quarter of its budget, on prisons each year, and that number is growing steadily.

"People are coming here for different reasons, but there is a real opportunity," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the Senate's leading proponents of sentencing changes.

The push is being led by the Senate, where Durbin has worked with tea party stalwarts such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on legislation that would give judges more flexibility to determine prison sentences in many drug cases. At the same time, a right-left coalition is pressing for changes in the House.

Prison costs have soared in the past 30 years, when laws requiring mandatory prison time for many drug offenses were put in place.

The yearly cost for one federal inmate ranges from $21,000 to $33,000 depending on the prison's level of security. About half of the nation's more than 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes — and virtually all of them faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Tough-on-crime drug policies once united Republicans and Democrats who didn't want to appear weak on crime. Now reversing or revising many of those policies is having the same effect.

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