Julie on Justice: Deja Vu All Over Again

Post Date: April 1, 2013

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

It’s deja vu all over again! Two decades ago, I was working furiously on a bill that would allow federal courts to avoid the mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenders if the sentence clearly exceeded the person’s role in the crime. That bill became known as the “safety valve.” It was passed by Congress the following year in 1994 and since then more than 80,000 federal drug defendants have received fairer sentences, saving taxpayers $11 billion.

Fast forward 20 years. Now we are working furiously on a NEW safety valve! This time all federal defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence would be eligible for a fairer sentence, not just those facing drug charges.

After many months of behind the scenes efforts, the bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 20 by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The bill, S. 619, is known as the “Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013.”

The Justice Safety Valve Act is exciting for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it was introduced by leading senators from both parties. The Republican sponsor, Sen. Rand Paul, became an overnight sensation to millions after his 13-hour filibuster against drones last month. And the Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy, is the powerful Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over all criminal justice issues. When the bill was introduced, each of them released strong statements in support of the bill.

Sen. Leahy said, “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.”

Sen. Paul said, “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 bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer.”

Even more important than the impressive bipartisan sponsors of this bill is what the Justice Safety Valve Act would do. It would allow federal judges to avoid giving mandatory prison sentences that are clearly excessive; the kind of sentences that keep judges up at night, the kind that ruin people’s lives.

The Justice Safety Valve Act would make thousands of federal defendants eligible to receive sentences that would more closely reflect their culpability. It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card, though. It wouldn’t mean that people get off without any prison time, just that they don’t get any more prison time than is necessary to keep us safe. For instance, if a federal judge determines that a person qualifies for the Justice Safety Valve Act, he could be sentenced to 5 years or 7 years (or some other appropriate amount) instead of the 10-year mandatory minimum. The savings from the extra years not spent in prison would free up taxpayers’ dollars for prosecuting truly violent offenders or rehabilitating addicts, or — imagine this — the money could even be returned to taxpayers!

To fully understand how the bill works, read this primer, which includes the bill text, the need for the bill, as well as an explanation of how a safety valve operates.

You’ll notice that S.619 does not apply retroactively to those already in federal prison. I know this is a huge disappointment and I get it. The 1994 drug safety valve was also not retroactive and I had a brother sitting in prison at the time for a marijuana offense. None of my efforts helped him. But I knew they would help somebody else’s family avoid extra years of pain. And that was worth fighting for. I wish retroactivity were a possibility, but with a bill of this magnitude it isn’t. So we have to pay it forward and fight for those who will enter federal prison in the years to come.

We’re also focused on helping state prisoners, which is why we released a new report titled, “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. We are going to make sure this report gets in the hands of every state legislator who is looking for new ideas.

It’s an exciting time for FAMM and one that feels great because we’re playing offense! We are fighting for something instead of simply fighting against the bad ideas of those who think the status quo is fine. Twenty years ago I should have changed our name to Families For Sentencing Justice because that’s exactly what we want, what we’ve spent the last two decades fighting for, and what S.619 is trying to achieve.

I predict it will be deja vu all over again and we’ll win this safety valve, too. After all, who can argue against a bill that keeps us safe and saves us money?! Especially with the force of FAMM’s membership behind the bill!

My best,


Julie Stewart

FAMM President