On Dems Who Say They’re Against Mandatory Minimums But Keep Voting For...

On Dems Who Say They’re Against Mandatory Minimums But Keep Voting For Them


So what have we long known — based on studied facts and data — about mandatory minimums?  That they are, 1. Racially applied, 2. Waste tax money, 3. Drive over-incarceration.  These facts are well established.  And now we’ve got the Koch Brothers and the NAACP agreeing to justice reforms. 

But for too many Democratic lawmakers, the “it” thing right now when it comes to criminal justice reform, is to do interviews and fly around the country saying you’re against mandatory minimums while repeating — without details — that you favor much needed reforms.  There’s no details for good reason.  If one could name a singular driver for why the U.S. leads the world in the rate of incarceration it would be mandatory minimums.

In a Buzzfeed interview published yesterday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) went on and on about how he opposes mandatory minimums.  Keep in mind, Leahy is also the sponsor of the Justice Safety Valve Act which would allow federal judges to sentence below a mandatory minimum penalty.

“I’m glad to see people are paying attention, but we need to make sure it’s real. You talk about mandatory minimums. You know, get rid of all of them,” Leahy said during the interview.  Oh we need to “make sure it’s real” alright. 

“They haven’t worked,” Leahy went on in BuzzFeed. “People ought to stand up and say, ‘Mandatory minimums don’t work, they don’t deter crime, they create problems for law enforcement, they’re extraordinarily expensive, and you get nothing in return.’”

He’s — of course — correct.  The only problem is: Leahy voted for a mandatory minimum on April 22, 2015. And it was a NEW expanded mandatory minimum — in S. 178, a sex trafficking bill.  Leahy was far from alone.  The bill passed 99-0.  At some point, congressional Democrats need to figure out how to get as good as Tea Partiers Rand Paul and Mike Lee on mandatory minimums.  But then, when it came to S.178, even Sens. Paul and Lee didn’t notice the expanded mandatory sentences.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is a big time political star so he doesn’t do interviews or answer questions. But he does do speeches and tweet a lot. On July 17, he tweeted, “mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent offenders are often life changing events.” That’s true.  So why did Booker vote for the expanded mandatory minimum penalty in S. 178 in April? Who knows.  No one can question Booker to find out.  I’ll give Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and the pro mandatory minimum gang this: At least they don’t say one thing and vote another.

RELATED: Text of S. 178 – The Justice for Sex Trafficking Victims Act. See sections 108, 111, 118 for the mandatories.

Remember: Many Democrats voting YES on mandatory minimums are getting loads of Black vote support.  And who do mandatory minimums impact disproportionately?  Take a wild guess.  That one of the House sponsors of S. 178 was DNC Chair Debbie Wassserman Schultz says it all.  Dems want Black votes and Black turnout but when it comes to Black issues, well, we need to talk.  When Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Tom Massie (R-KY) and Raul Labrador fought to take the mandatory minimums out of S. 178 in a committee markup, Wasserman Schultz fought against it. The amendment failed.

Only Reps. Conyers, Scott and Massie voted against the latest bill with mandatory minimums in them when it hit the House floor. Incredibly, Conyers, Scott and Massie were the only members of Congress, out of 534 people, who voted NO on the bill because of the mandatory penalties.  At least we know there at least three members of Congress who truly take justice reform seriously to vote accordingly.

RELATED: May 2015 – FAMM’s Julie Stewart Commends House Members for Saying NO to Expanded Mandatory Minimums

We already know from votes and legislation that several prominent Democrats in the Senate still support the number one driver of incarceration.  We already know the incoming Senate Minority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), supports them.  Bill Clinton can admit his punitive omnibus crime bill was a flop but Schumer still hasn’t. We also know that another Clinton Crime Bill fan, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is always there to needlessly insert mandatory minimums into legislation.  We know that other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Al Franken (D-MN) are not having any big hesitations voting for mandatory minimums.  And we know that the House Crime Committee ranking member, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) voted for S. 178.

When it comes to serious criminal justice reform the only important thing to take note of is votes and legislation offered. That’s it. All else is PR.


  1. Though I completely agree with the premise that mandatory minimums are bad policy and largely racially discriminatory, this article presents a much too simplistic view of this issue by using S. 178 as the test. The provisions at issue in S. 178 are criminal statues that hold human traffickers accountable for their crimes against vulnerable adults and children — the vast majority of whom are people of color. The provisions originated in 2000 as part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The mandatory minimums were subsequently added to the criminal statute in 2006 as part of a totally separate child protection bill. So it’s worth noting that S. 178 did not create these mandatory minimums. S. 178 did however clarify the law to make them more racially just by making clear they should be applied to both purchasers (mostly caucasian men) rather than merely continuing to apply those statutes only to exploiters/traffickers (which DOJ data shows have been predominately black and brown men.) The one new mandatory minimum created under S. 178 was a highly controversial amendment dealing with holding internet sites accountable for trafficking children online. Many advocates even fought against its passage but it ultimately passed the Senate because of the open amendment process and was added to the overall package. That entire package was then sent to the House for consideration. That’s unfortunately one of the issues with our legislative process. One bad amendment can taint an overall great bill. The provision will be undoubtedly litigated for its constitutionality and most likely fail to be upheld. Many supported 99% of this bill but not that one new provision. So the question is should Members of Congress have voted against an extremely important bill that most everyone agrees is needed to provide deficit neutral funding to victims of human trafficking in the US, (a historically underserved population) because of one provision that will likely get thrown out in court anyway? Some will still say yes. But in any event, I’m just trying to say it’s more nuanced than this writer is trying to make it out to be. I personally don’t think these Dems deserve to be written off as hypocrites for voting for this legislation.

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