Feinstein Wary of Proposals to Reduce Prison Sentences

By John Gramlich, CQ Roll Call

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she is conflicted about legislation to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing laws, signaling that lawmakers in both parties are wary of the effort ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee markup in December.

Feinstein, the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, said in an interview that she is "not comfortable" with legislation that would reduce criminal penalties for some offenders, even though Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has strongly urged the panel to act on the issue.

"We’ve been wrestling with it," Feinstein said. "For me right now, it’s not an easy question."

The Judiciary Committee is expected to meet after the Thanksgiving recess to mark up four bills related to the federal prison system, including two that would effectively reduce criminal sentences and two that would allow some prisoners to earn earlier releases if they participate in rehabilitation programs. All four bills are aimed at curbing the rapid growth in the number of federal inmates.

Diane Feinstein / Image courtesy forbes.com

Diane Feinstein / Image courtesy forbes.com

One of the sentencing bills (S 619), sponsored by Leahy and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would greatly expand judges  discretion to impose criminal penalties below the mandatory minimum sentences that are set out in statute. The other (S 1410), sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, is narrower, but would reduce the statutory minimum penalties for some drug crimes, among other steps.

Feinstein said she has serious reservations about any legislation that would allow "violent offenders" to reduce the amount of time they spend behind bars.

"The federal prison system is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. It's not the state system, it’s not the county system," she said. "I don't know what it would mean [to] shorten their sentences. I’m not comfortable with it."

Feinstein's remarks represent a break with Leahy, who supports both sentencing bills and has repeatedly argued that lawmakers should reconsider "tough-on-crime" penalties that have led to the increase in the federal prison population and a corresponding increase in taxpayer costs.

"After years of debate, I am encouraged that we have bipartisan agreement that we must act; that we must re-evaluate how many people we send to prison and for how long. Public safety demands it. Fiscal responsibility demands it. Justice demands it," Leahy said in a statement earlier this month.

Opening Jailhouse Doors

Critics of mandatory sentencing laws have been hoping for a broad bipartisan vote on the proposals in committee and see Feinstein's position as an obstacle.

Jeremy Haile, federal affairs Counsel with The Sentencing Project, said in an email that some lawmakers are framing the sentencing proposals as "opening jailhouse doors and letting dangerous individuals go free," a characterization that his group disputes.

"Some senior Democrats seem to be living in the tough on crime  1990s, in which some sought to  take the crime issue  away from Republicans," Haile said, arguing that the sentencing bills are "narrowly tailored" and "ensure that limited resources are focused only on people who present a threat to public safety."

Feinstein said she is working with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on one of the other proposals set to be taken up by the Judiciary Committee. The draft legislation would address crowded prisons by expanding inmate rehabilitation opportunities, rather than making changes in sentencing laws, and is similar to the fourth bill (S 1675) on the committee's agenda sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Despite the support of some Republicans for the sentencing legislation, the senior GOP committee member, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, has indicated he is unlikely to go along. He credits mandatory minimum sentencing laws with helping to reduce crime in recent decades, although he has left the door open to supporting more targeted changes in federal criminal punishment, such as releasing severely ill or elderly inmates from incarceration ahead of schedule.

(First published by CQ Roll Call and used by permission)