Wednesday’s hearing was the first step in what supporters hope will be legislative action by the end of the year. The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet scheduled a meeting to discuss the bills affecting mandatory sentences. But Leahy has said repeatedly he would like to press forward on the issue.
In the House, there are no comparable sentencing reform bills and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has voiced skepticism. But a number of House Republicans have backed different reform efforts and have said they are watching closely what the Senate does.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the committee heard from two supporters of reform efforts, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah, and Marc Levin, the policy director for the Right on Crime Initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
But another witness, Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said mandatory minimums had been a useful tool for state and local prosecutors and questioned the push to change them.
“Why now?” Burns said. “With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes?”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas said efforts to correct problems were noble, but “we have to be careful not to legislate by anecdote. We have all heard legal horror stories.”
Leahy pleaded with his colleagues to work together on the issue, saying it is one of the most important the committee is considering. To bring home the impact, he asked a dozen or so family members of prisoners sentenced to mandatory minimums to stand up.
The family members, who had traveled from Montana, Texas, Utah and Illinois, among other places, stood and clutched photos of their loved ones as Leahy closed the committee hearing.