By Peter Dujardin,
NEWPORT NEWS — A federal lawmaker from the Peninsula is helping to lead a bipartisan effort to reduce minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which he and other backers say will translate into fewer prisoners
and large cost savings.
U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, the “Smarter Sentencing Act.” It was introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, with a companion bill introduced in the Senate in July.
“Mandatory minimums have been studied for a long time,” Scott said in an interview Thursday. “And all these studies conclude that mandatory minimums fail to reduce crime, waste the taxpayers’ money, and often require the judges to impose sentences that violate common sense.”
The legislation would also increase the number of defendants eligible for a waiver that allows judges to sentence particular defendants below the minimums. That is, the bill would allow that “safety valve” to be available for people with more on their criminal records than is now the case.
Reducing the number of people jailed for drug crimes — and giving more sentencing discretion to judges — has become a bipartisan push in both houses of Congress.
That’s a change from years past, Scott said, when federal lawmakers pushed strongly for mandatory minimum sentences. The champions of mandatory minimums seem to be quieter these days, he said.
“The question is no longer why don’t you support mandatory minimums, but why do you?” Scott said. “We thought the fact that you don’t see anyone defending mandatory minimums anymore, that maybe it’s a good opportunity to repeal some of them.”
In July, Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act in the Senate.
The House bill was sponsored and formally filed on Wednesday by U.S. Rep Raul Labrador, R-Ind., a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Scott, the House’s lead co-sponsor, is spearheading the effort to sell the bill to fellow Democrats. He serves on the House Judiciary Committee and is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee’s “over-criminalization task force.”
The lawmakers are apparently following the people on the issue.
The United States, with five percent of the world’s population, has a quarter of the world’s prisoners — with four times as many mentally ill people in prisons than in hospitals. And with the state and federal budgetary crunches of recent years, an increasing number of people don’t like the idea of continuing to support a burgeoning prison population
Dujardin can be reached by phone
(Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press. First published by the Daily Press and used here by permission)