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.


Pardons: A Delicate Balancing Act for Governors

As the most incarcerated nation in the world, many people have strong and even emotional opinions about crime and punishment in the United States. There is a sense of the “bad guys” being bad to the core and getting their due. Pardons issued by governors across the country, therefore, are sometimes greeted with serious controversy despite usually being well-calculated and cautious decisions. [Read more…]

Getting a Job After A Criminal Conviction and Jail

When you have a conviction on your record, it can have untold consequences for the rest of your life. In particular, a conviction can make it difficult to find a good job. Fortunately, there are programs out there specifically targeted at ex-offenders and that assist people in getting back into the workforce after a period of incarceration. [Read more…]

Could Mental Illness Result in A Lesser Criminal Sentence?

When a judge goes to sentence a convicted person, they have a lot to take into consideration. One of these things is frequently the mental health of the offender. Researchers from the University of Utah set out to discover how exactly a mental health diagnosis and a complex biological explanation of such a diagnosis could affect a sentence. What they found is truly interesting. [Read more…]

Obama Commutes Federal Sentence for Crack Cocaine Sale

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An Argument to Repeal Mandatory Minimums

The New York Times published an editorial calling on lawmakers in Washington D.C. to do away with all federal mandatory minimum prison sentences. The editorial cited this report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, one which many negative things to say about the sentencing practice. [Read more…]

Defendants Who Make Pen Pals of Judges

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Kentucky Makes Major Misdemeanor Changes—Will Other States Follow Suit?

This week there are major changes afoot in Kentucky. Many misdemeanors will be handled with a citation rather than an arrest and some felony drug offenses will be reduced to misdemeanor classification. So, in this time that seems ripe for criminal justice reform, will other states follow Kentucky’s lead? [Read more…]

Judges Still Sentencing Crack Defendants Under Unjust Law

In what was called the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress reduced the glaring disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. But they failed to make it retroactive to apply to those who where previously convicted, but not yet sentenced. Now, judges are being forced to sentence defendants under the old and horribly skewed law despite the general recognition that such law was completely unjust. But, they aren’t doing it without voicing their opinions. [Read more…]

New Study Questions Value of Drug Courts

Drug Courts have gone from an anomaly to a fairly commonplace alternative to the traditional criminal courts—often touted as giving offenders who would otherwise be sent to prison a chance at rehabilitation and a subsequent reduction in their risk of re-offending. But a new study from the Justice Policy Institute states that drug courts might not be the win-win answer they are painted as. [Read more…]