Holder’s move on mandatory minimums a boon to Rand Paul

August 12, 2013

Monday's announcement that Attorney General Eric Holder will seek to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders could soon create some interesting bedfellows.


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gestures as he speaks at a forum on immigration organized by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Reforming mandatory minimums is an issue that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been pushing (no pun intended) for a while now -- including during an appearance at historically black Howard University earlier this year.

A Paul staffer said the potential 2016 presidential candidate, who has already proposed a bill giving judges more leeway in sentencing drug offenders below the mandatory minimums, will work with the Obama administration on the issue.

"This is already a bipartisan issue, led in the Senate by Sens. Paul, [Patrick] Leahy, [Mike] Lee and [Richard] Durbin," said the staffer, granted anonymity to discuss strategy. "Senator Paul believes strongly in this issue and that we must find a solution. He is pleased to work with all who agree and want to push forward."

The aide also said that there has been contact between Paul and the administration.

Update 1:17 p.m.: Paul has released the following statement: "I look forward to working with them to advance my bipartisan legislation, the Justice Safety Valve Act, to permanently restore justice and preserve judicial discretion in federal cases. ... The Administration’s involvement in this bipartisan issue is a welcome development. Now the hard work begins to change the law to permanently address this injustice."

For now, the Justice Department is focusing on things it can do without the consent of Congress, including not using charges that require mandatory minimum sentences against low-level drug offenders with no ties to gangs or criminal organizations. The policy will also seek to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, including the elderly.

But Holder is also expected to line up behind a bill similar to what Paul is proposing.

“Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars,” Holder will say Monday at a speech in San Francisco. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.”

The development is certainly a positive one for Paul.

While today's Republican Party primary voters generally don't like their elected officials working with the Obama administration, mandatory minimum drug offenses aren't exactly a partisan issue. That's why Paul -- a libertarian -- has joined with tea party Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Democratic Sens. Durbin (Ill.) and Leahy (Vt.) on this bill.

The limited polling on the issues suggests many or most of Americans in both parties are open to such changes.

If Paul can work with these senators and the administration to get something done on mandatory minimum sentences, he can credibly claim that he took the lead on a major issue and got something bipartisan done -- without the same potential for blowback produced by the effort of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to reform immigration laws, for instance.

Much work remains to be done, but if Congress winds up passing legislation to rein in mandatory minimum sentencing, Paul stands to gain plenty.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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