The Bush administration tries to roll back a U.S. Supreme Court decision by pushing legislation that would require prison time for nearly all criminals.
The Justice Department is offering the plan as an opening salvo in a larger debate about whether sentences for crack cocaine are unfairly harsh and racially discriminatory.
Republicans are seizing the administration's crackdown, packaged in legislation to combat violent crime, as a campaign issue for 2008.
In a speech June 1 to announce the bill, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urged Congress to re-impose mandatory minimum prison sentences against federal convicts - and not let judges consider such penalties "merely a suggestion."
Such an overhaul, in part, "will strengthen our hand in fighting criminals who threaten the safety and security of all Americans," Gonzales said in the speech, delivered three days before the FBI announced a slight national uptick in violent crime during 2006.
Judges, however, were livid over the proposal to limit their power.
"This would require one-size-fits-all justice," said U.S. District Judge Paul G. Cassell, chairman of the Criminal Law committee of the Judicial Conference, the judicial branch's policy-making body.
"The vast majority of the public would like the judges to make the individualized decisions needed to make these very difficult sentencing decisions," Cassell said. "Judges are the ones who look the defendants in the eyes. They hear from the victims. They hear from the prosecutors."
The debate, pitting prosecutors against jurists, has been going on since a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that declared the government's two decades-old sentencing guidelines unconstitutional. The ruling in United States v. Booker said judges are not required to abide by the federal guidelines - which set mandatory minimum and maximums on sentences - but could consider them in meting out prison time.
The Justice Department wants to return to the old system of mandatory minimum sentences, under which judges could grant leniency only in special cases. Without those required floors, Justice officials maintain that different judges could hand out widely varying penalties for the same crime.
Justice officials also point to a growing number of lighter sentences as possible proof that crime is on the rise because criminals are no longer cowed by strict penalties.
In the two years since the ruling, federal judges have become three times more likely to hand down prison sentences below the suggested levels, according to 2006 U.S. Sentencing Commission data. In 2005, before the Booker case, those penalties represented 4.3 percent of all sentences imposed. That number rose to 13 percent after the Supreme Court ruling and dipped to 12.1 percent in 2006, the data show.
Still, Justice officials privately concede that returning to the sentencing guidelines as required minimums is a long-shot at best. At the least, they say, their proposal marks a first step toward ratcheting back a counter-push by courts to lower penalties for first-time crack cocaine convictions.
This week, the Supreme Court waded into the racially sensitive dispute, agreeing to consider whether courts can give defendants similar sentences for crack cocaine crimes as for cocaine powder. Crack crimes usually garner much tougher penalties, and most crack cocaine offenders in federal courts are black.