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Crime Bill Aims to Give Judges Leeway in Mandatory Sentencing

Black Prisoners' HandsThe Obama administration is supporting a bipartisan bill that aims to reduce the nation’s overburdened criminal justice system, according to The Associated Press. The legislation plans to reduce prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders by giving judges more discretion. Under the new legislation, judges would be able to give sentences that are less than federal mandatory minimums.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said the legislation would allow judges to hand out prison sentences more equitably, enabling them to distinguish between big-time criminals and small-time offenders.

“Because our laws cast too broad a net, we have a hard time distinguishing between the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the mope who doesn’t,” Yates said. “This comes with great costs — costs to operate our prison system, costs to our communities and families and costs to the public’s confidence in our system of justice.”

The War on Drugs, launched by President Richard Nixon, has caused America’s prison population to explode. The AP reports that in 1980, the prison population was 25,000— now it’s more than 200,000. Prison reform has received backing from both the left and the right. It has been supported by President Barack Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder and the ACLU. But it’s also supported by Koch Industries, which is known for backing conservative causes. In July, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a jail in an effort to raise awareness about the problem of recidivism and discuss how to integrate ex-cons back into society.

The bill is supported by a cross section of Democratic and Republican senators, including Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley ,and the top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Patrick Leahy. It’s also received support from Sen. John Cornyn, the no. 2 Republican in the senate, and Sen. Dick Durbin, the no. 2 Democrat.

However, not everyone is in favor of the proposed legislation. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former prosecutor, claimed mandatory sentences worked.

“Thousands of people are alive today leading productive lives because they weren’t murdered,” said Sessions, according to The National Law Journal. 

“Surely you would agree—would you not—that when mandatory minimums are either eliminated or reduced it substantially reduces the ability of law officers to negotiate and protect the public,” said Sessions in a discussion with Yates.

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