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Washington • Federal guidelines that require lengthy prison sentences are overcrowding prisons, overpunishing offenders and underserving justice, former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Tolman, a former Republican appointee, said his efforts as a federal prosecutor were rewarding but at times frustrating because of mandatory sentences that brought no benefit to public safety and often left small-time criminals serving decades.

"Rather than focusing valuable resources on the highest levels of criminal conduct, the reality is that today's federal system is all too often mired in the pursuit of low-level offenders," Tolman said.

The testimony came as the Judiciary Committee weighs reshaping federal guidelines to judges that leave little wiggle room on sentences, including that of Utahn Weldon Angelos, who became the poster boy for ending mandatory minimum sentences after he was convicted of selling $350 in drugs while armed and sent to prison for 55 years.

Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Mike Lee of Utah have introduced legislation to reduce mandatory sentences for some drug offenses, change sentences for some crack-cocaine crimes and give judges more discretion in whether to apply minimum prison terms.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont said bipartisan momentum is growing to end the rigid federal sentencing structure.

"We must re-evaluate how many people we send to prison and for how long," Leahy said. "Fiscal responsibility demands it. Justice demands it."

Scott Burns, a Utahn who served as the former deputy drug czar under President George W. Bush and now is the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, countered that crime is down significantly in the United States and that mandatory minimum sentences have been a tool that prosecutors have used to drive those record lows.

"While federal mandatory minimum sentences sometime result in outcomes that seem harsh, the vast majority of those cases are the result of a defendant [who] rejected plea negotiations, went to trial and then received the sentence" he or she could have avoided, Burns said.

Burns disagreed with Attorney General Eric Holder's recent directive to no longer prosecute or send to prison first-time offenders of low-level drug crimes.

"U.S. attorneys have never, to my knowledge, prosecuted low-level cases unless there's a gun," Burns said. "First-time offenders do not go to prison."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said this week that some reforms are needed but that Holder's efforts and ending mandatory sentences would provide "unjustified leniency" that would harm public safety.

"For the most part, it is not the case that too many Americans go to prisons for too long and for no good law enforcement reason," Grassley said on the Senate floor. "And the attorney general just is not right when he says that 'widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.' Increased incarceration has led to less crime."

Lee, R-Utah, said that giving judges more discretion — such as through his legislation — would save taxpayers money and enhance public safety by focusing federal resources on more serious crimes.

"It's not clear that our country can afford to continue waging this war on drugs through a system that so directly and so inevitably involves these kinds of minimum mandatory sentences," Lee said.

Lee's Utah colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, sponsored legislation in 2010 that increased sentences for crack cocaine distribution while lessening the sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

More life sentences

For every nine inmates incarcerated across the country, one is now serving a life sentence. Life sentences have increased since 1984, including in Utah . › B1