Bill Would Let Judges Bypass Mandatory Minimums In Certain Cases

Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums have not done what was promised—they haven’t reduced crime and they haven’t eliminated racial disparities. What they have done is serve as fuel to the prison systems of this country and forced government at local, state, and federal levels to dole out millions in related costs. In an effort to slow their effects, lawmakers have introduced “safety valve” legislation that would give judges a way out.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)—an advocacy organization supporting the bill­—the legislation would allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimums under specific conditions. The bill, coined The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (S.619) was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY).

3D Judges Gavel“I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul are promoting this common-sense sentencing reform,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “The mandatory minimum sentences Congress chose might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving nonviolent offenders. By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders.”

Bill Would Give Judges “Safety Valve” In Limited Situations

Judges would be able to sentence a defendant below the mandatory minimum only if that lesser sentence wouldn’t sacrifice public safety. It doesn’t do away with the mandatory minimums, nor apply that they aren’t appropriate in some cases, but merely offers judges a chance to make more proper sentencing decisions in cases where a defendant plays a limited role in the commission of a crime, for instance, or where the greater sentence would just be out of line with the spirit of justice.

“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,” said Sen. Paul. “This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties.”

Currently, there is a “safety valve” on the books, but it only applies to drug offenses. The new bill would allow it to be used elsewhere with the goal of balancing public safety with the goals of justice.

The “tough on crime” rhetoric of years passed is played out and has served to do nothing more than create a system of retribution rather than rehabilitation or real safety. Smart on crime policies stand to change that.


About David Matson