Two senators want to give federal judges the ability to impose prison sentences shorter than the mandatory minimums they’re required to impose, an option long requested by defense attorneys and judges who feel restricted by sentencing laws.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act on Wednesday, which allows judges to sentence offenders below the statutory requirements "if the court finds it necessary to do so." The option is currently available in some drug cases; this law would extend the discretion to all federal crimes.

Leahy, a former prosecutor and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor that the bill will "combat injustice in federal sentencing and the waste of taxpayer dollars by allowing judges appropriate discretion in sentencing."

Leahy said he understood the role of mandatory sentences in deterring crime and keeping criminals off the streets. "I have come to believe, however, that mandatory minimum sentences do more harm than good," he said. "As Justice Kennedy said, ‘In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust.’"

Leahy cited a 2010 survey by the U.S. Sentencing Commission of more than 600 federal district court judges, in which nearly 70 percent wanted the safety valve provision for all crimes. "Judges, who hand down sentences and can see close up when they are appropriate and just, overwhelmingly oppose mandatory minimum sentences," he said.

This month, a group of white-collar lawyers gave applause to senior U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, who told them that U.S. Sentencing Guidelines should be scrapped because they are too strict and often lead to arbitrary white-collar sentences, Main Justice reported.

A number of advocacy groups have lent support to the bill, including the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"The Act is a common sense reform that will ensure that offenders don’t get more prison time than is necessary to keep us safe, and it will help save scarce prison space and resources for people who are a real threat to the community," leadership conference president and chief executive officer Wade Henderson said in a statement.

Especially now, senators seem to understand the financial argument. Mandatory minimum sentences are an important factor in the increasing costs to house federal inmates, with $6.8 billion in tax dollars going to the Federal Bureau of Prisons last year instead of other law enforcement programs, Leahy said.

"Building more prisons and locking people up for longer and longer—especially nonviolent offenders—is not the best use of taxpayer money and is, in fact, an ineffective means of keeping our communities safe," Leahy said.

In a written statement, Paul said the bill will "combat the explosion" of new criminal laws that carry mandatory minimum penalties.

"Our country’s mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the Constitutional Separation of Powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer," Paul said in the statement.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.