Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) proposed legislation on Wednesday that would give judges more discretion in the sentencing of federal drug crimes.

The two senators said their bipartisan bill would help reduce unnecessarily long federal prison sentences. The Justice Safety Valve Act would expand a current law that allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum.

The first "safety valve" was enacted in 1994 for low-level, first-time, and non-violent drug offenders.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have frequently been blamed for the United States exceptionally high prison population. More than 10,000 people were sentenced to mandatory minimums in 2010, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The vast majority of those sentences were for drug offenses.

"The United States has a mass incarceration problem," Leahy said in a statement. "Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated grew by 700 percent. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of its prisoners. At the end of 2011, 2.2 million people were in jail or prison in the United States. That means we incarcerate roughly one in every 100 adults."

The legislation would allow judges to consider whether the sentence would protect the public, provide a just punishment, and deter others from committing the crime. The bill also allows judges to consider whether the mandatory minimum sentence creates a racial disparity among offenders.

"Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake," Leahy added. "I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them."

-- --

[Man in prison via Shutterstock]