WASHINGTON -- Virginia Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott declared war this week on a longtime staple of federal crime policy: mandatory minimum sentences.
The Newport News Democrat, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, said he was eager to build a case for abolishing mandatory sentences that left judges unable to tailor a punishment to a specific crime.
"One of the glaring problems is the imposition of mandatory minimums that shock the conscience and violate common sense," Scott said.
At a hearing Scott held to highlight the issue, lawmakers heard tales of disproportionate penalties that no one tried to defend.
U.S. District Judge Paul G. Cassell of Utah said he recently had to sentence a first-time offender who carried a gun during a marijuana deal -- but didn't use or display it -- to 55 years in prison, under a mandatory sentence for firearms offenses.
The same day, he gave a murderer 22 years in prison -- the maximum suggested by federal sentencing guidelines.
"Judges aren't given the opportunity to assess the specific circumstances of individual cases," said Cassell, representing the Judicial Conference of the United States, in urging reform.
But in trying to overturn decades of federal policy, Scott might face opposition from a fellow Virginian: Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Chesapeake, the subcommittee's ranking Republican.
"Nobody says these things are perfect," Forbes said. "We don't get it right all the time. But you don't throw the baby out with the bath water."
While open to amending mandatory-sentencing laws, Forbes suggested that he was determined to make sure they weren't abolished.
"It's a message that if you do the crime, you're going to do the time," he said.
But Scott, a vocal House leader on crime issues who took over the subcommittee chairmanship this year, made clear in a later interview he was just as determined to get rid of them.
"If the research says they make no sense, why should they be there?" he asked. "You can't find any peer-reviewed research that says mandatory minimums do anything other than waste taxpayers' money."
Any change in federal policy will not affect the vast majority of criminal cases, most of which are prosecuted by states.
Of an estimated 1 million convictions each year, less than 6 percent come from federal courts. That's according to The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit group that lobbies for criminal justice reform.
But reform advocates say a change in federal policy could set an important precedent that could filter down to states. And even supporters of mandatory sentences acknowledge that they sometimes go too far.
Among people testifying was Serena Nunn, a Minneapolis woman who began dating a drug dealer and who was indicted on three federal felony counts involving the distribution of cocaine in 1989. Under mandatory-sentencing laws, the young first-time offender was sentenced to 15 years and eight months.
The case drew national attention, and then-President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000. "After my incarceration, my immediate family fell apart," said Nunn, now a law clerk for a criminal defense attorney. "My mother fell into a deeper depression."
Even as he begins building a case for reform, Scott acknowledged that he had no political consensus behind him yet to push major legislation. "There's no timetable at this point," he said of his legislative plans. "We're going to have additional hearings."
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., is the Judiciary Committee's chairman and a Scott ally. He used the hearing to try to begin building bipartisan support for reform. But the early skirmishing suggested that there would be more battles to come.
"I'm trying to win over Republicans to support this," Conyers told Forbes, the panel's senior Republican.
"With all due respect, you've got the majority," Forbes replied.
To which Conyers shot back, "It's a pretty thin majority, as I get reminded every day."
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