Congress Looks to Relax Mandatory Prison Terms

WASHINGTON (AP) -

Every weekend, Cindy Martinson treks from her home in Mason City, Iowa, about 160 miles roundtrip to Waseca, Minn. She visits the federal prison there, where her daughter Mandy Martinson, a first-time offender, is in the middle of 15-year prison sentence.

Cindy knows her daughter made mistakes and broke the law. Mandy Martinson was at a low point in her life, her mother said, “but it is just not fair. It’s got to change not just for her. Everything is so overcrowded and it is just wrong.”

Mandy’s federal judge, James E. Gritzner, acknowledged at the trial that she posed little threat. But he said his hands were tied by sentencing guidelines. He sentenced her to 15 years in prison for drug and weapons charges.

Concerns about both the fairness and the costs of cases like Mandy Martinson’s have been growing in Congress, and the issue is gaining new speed as an unusual coalition of tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats push for the largest overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines yet.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing this week on minimum sentences. The committee is considering two bills, each sponsored by a liberal Democrat and a tea party Republican, that would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentences in many circumstances, particularly for some drug crimes. Wednesday’s hearing is the first step in legislation that advocates and lawmakers in both parties say stands a chance of winning enactment by the end of the year.

Attorney General Eric Holder has shown interest in working with Congress to make permanent changes in sentencing laws. Holder last month instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Sentencing reform lands in an area of rare common ground between liberals and conservatives. Just a few years ago, it was an issue shunned by many politicians in both parties, lest they be labeled soft on crime.

Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said prisons are filled with inmates like Martinson.

“Let’s put it this way: I’ve been doing this for 22 years and this is the first time since 1993 I have felt significant attention from Congress on this issue,” she said.