FAMM Welcomes Bipartisan Sentencing “Safety Valve” in Congress, Releases New Report on How Safety Valves Help States

Post Date: March 20, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. – FAMM President Julie Stewart today hailed the introduction of The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (S. 619), a bipartisan federal bill that would save taxpayer dollars by reserving scarce federal prison beds for the most dangerous offenders. The bill creates a “safety valve” that allows federal courts to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum sentence under specific conditions.  The legislation was introduced on March 20 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Stewart also announced the release of a new FAMM report entitled, “Turning Off the Spigot: How Sentencing Safety Valves Can Help States Protect Public Safety and Save Money.” The report details how eight states have embraced sentencing safety valves as a way of reducing prison populations and saving money, while at the same time protecting public safety.

“I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul are promoting this common-sense sentencing reform,” said 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.”

“Congress has too often moved in the wrong direction by imposing new mandatory minimum sentences unsupported by evidence while failing to reauthorize crucial programs like the Second Chance Act to rehabilitate prisoners who will be released to rejoin our communities,” said Sen. Leahy. “Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake.  I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly nonviolent 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.  A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer.”

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

Currently, federal prisons are overcrowded, at 138 percent of their capacity, and the prison budget consumes a full quarter of the Justice Department’s budget, a financial situation the Justice Department has called “unsustainable.” A recent Congressional Research Service report called for repealing or reforming mandatory minimum sentences as a solution to this crisis.

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 authorizes federal courts to depart below a statutory mandatory minimum sentence only after finding, among other things, that providing a particular defendant a shorter sentence – say, seven or eight years in prison for a drug offense rather than the 10 year mandatory minimum – will not jeopardize public safety. The bill does not require judges to impose shorter sentences, and for many crimes, the mandatory minimum established by Congress will be appropriate. But in cases where the mandatory minimum does not account for the offender’s limited role in a crime or other relevant factors, the judge would be allowed to consider those factors and craft a more appropriate sentence. Finally, the bill requires a judge to state on the record why the mandatory minimum sentence in that particular case is not necessary to protect public safety.

FAMM was involved in the creation of the existing federal safety valve, which is a strict test that has allowed courts to give 80,000 nonviolent federal drug offenders fairer sentences since 1995.  The existing safety valve – applicable only to drug offenders – has saved taxpayers millions in unnecessary prison costs. During this same period, the nation’s crime rate has dropped to its lowest level in a generation.

Stewart also announced the release of FAMM’s new state report, “Turning Off the Spigot,” which highlights how state safety valve laws are helping states save money and keep crime rates low. “We want to make sure state legislators across the country are aware of this common sense reform. While repealing mandatory minimums is the best option, passing a safety valve that lets judges bypass them in certain cases is another smart approach,” added Stewart.

The FAMM report begins with a foreword by Republican State Senator Stewart Greenleaf of Pennsylvania. Greenleaf wrote:

“Just as I was once an advocate for harsher, longer sentences, I am now at the forefront of the movement to balance our criminal justice system in favor of more rehabilitation and judicial discretion.  In Pennsylvania, we have recently made great progress with landmark alternative sentencing statutes, and I hope that soon mandatory minimums will be more widely accepted as an area in need of reform. 

“The following report should serve as a guide to lawmakers and policy advisors across the country who are seeking to reduce their states’ inmate populations and save precious resources currently spent on incarceration.  FAMM has demonstrated that we can be tough on crime as well as smart on crime.”   

The report concludes by recommending a safety valve that is similar to the Justice Safety Valve Act sponsored by Senators Paul and Leahy. FAMM plans to distribute the report to state legislators across the country who sit on crime-focused legislative committees.

For a comprehensive overview of the Justice Safety Valve, including the bill text, a summary of its benefits, profiles of individuals who would have been eligible for relief, and likely questions and answers, click here. 

To download FAMM’s report, “Turning Off the Spigot: How Sentencing Safety Valves Can Help States Protect Public Safety and Save Money”, click here.

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