Safety Valves

gavel

A “safety valve” is an exception to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. A safety valve allows a judge to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum term if certain conditions are met.  Safety valves can be broad or narrow, applying to many or few crimes (e.g., drug crimes only) or types of offenders (e.g., nonviolent offenders). They do not repeal mandatory minimum sentences, but safety valves save taxpayers money because they allow courts to give shorter, more appropriate prison sentences, which reserves dollars and prison beds for those who are most deserving of the mandatory minimum term and present the biggest danger to society.

The Problem: Under current federal law, there is only one safety valve, and it applies only to first-time, nonviolent drug offenders whose cases did not involve guns. FAMM was instrumental in the passage of this safety valve, in 1994. Since then, over 80,000 nonviolent drug offenders have received fairer sentences because of it, saving taxpayers billions. Each year, about one in five federal drug offenders receives a fairer, less costly sentence because of the drug safety valve.

But a broader safety valve is needed, because

  • Mere presence of even a lawfully purchased and registered gun in a person’s home is enough to disqualify a nonviolent drug offender,
  • Even very minor prior infractions (e.g., careless driving) that resulted in no prison time can disqualify an otherwise worthy nonviolent drug offender, and
  • Other federal mandatory minimum sentences for other types of crimes – notably, gun possession offenses – are often excessive and apply to nonviolent offenders who could serve less time in prison, at lower costs to taxpayers, without endangering the public.

The Solution: Create a broader safety valve that applies to all mandatory minimum sentences, or expand the existing drug safety valve to cover more people.


Pending Bills:

S. 1410: Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013

H.R. 3382: Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013

The Smarter Sentencing Act will increase public safety by saving money for top Justice Department law enforcement priorities, help reduce dangerous overcrowding in federal prisons, reduce the federal prison budget, fix a long-standing racial disparity in sentencing, and ensure that mandatory minimum sentences are reserved for the most dangerous and violent drug offenders. The bills will not repeal any mandatory minimum laws and will only impact federal drug sentences. The Smarter Sentencing Act will narrowly expand the existing drug safety valve, reduce many federal mandatory minimum drug sentences by half, and make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively applicable to 8,800 federal prisoners, saving taxpayers billions of dollars in prison costs. For full details, click the links above.

FAMM supports both the House and Senate versions of this bill. 

THESE BILLS ARE NOT LAWS. We do not know if or when either bill will become a law. Before it can become a law, a bill must be passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the President. This could take a long time, or it may never happen. Each year, thousands of bills are introduced in Congress, but very, very few become laws.


S. 619: The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013

H.R. 1695: The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013

The Justice Safety Valve Act will increase public safety by saving money for top Justice Department law enforcement priorities, help reduce dangerous overcrowding in federal prisons, reduce the federal prison budget, and ensure that mandatory minimum sentences are reserved for only those offenders who deserve them. The bill will create a new safety valve provision that applies to all mandatory minimum sentences in the federal criminal code. The bill will not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences, but give courts the option to sentence deserving people below the minimum term if that sentence does not fit the crime or the offender. For full details, click the links above.

FAMM supports both the House and Senate versions of this bill. 

THESE BILLS ARE NOT LAWS. We do not know if or when either bill will become a law. Before it can become a law, a bill must be passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the President. This could take a long time, or it may never happen. Each year, thousands of bills are introduced in Congress, but very, very few become laws.


Safety Valve News

January 16, 2014

Political Odd Couples Push Sentencing Reform

(Washington Post) – At a time when partisans in Congress don’t agree on anything, they have found one area where they can: Reforming America’s sprawling and costly prison system. Nearly 30 years after creating mandatory sentences for drug offenses, an unlikely band of lawmakers is moving forward with their plans to fix what they say is… Read more »


December 16, 2013

Tell Your U.S. Senators Today! Support the Smarter Sentencing Act

We’re down to the last few weeks of the year, but we’re not done working yet, and neither is the U.S. Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed its December 12 meeting to discuss federal mandatory minimum sentencing reform until Thursday, December 19. On the 19th, the Committee is scheduled to begin discussing three bills that would reform… Read more »


December 12, 2013

Sentencing Reform Pushes to Make the Punishment Fit the Crime

(National  Journal) — Weldon Angelos is in his ninth year of a 55-year prison term. But he isn’t locked up for murder or anything of the sort. Angelos sold $350 worth of marijuana while allegedly carrying a gun and having more guns back at his home. Angelos’s sentencing judge, Paul Cassell, called the punishment “cruel,… Read more »



December 3, 2013

If You Love FAMM Like I Love FAMM…

Walking to the FAMM water cooler the other day, a funny thought crossed my mind: I can’t believe I get to do a job I love this much. I love trying to change hearts and minds in Congress. I love going up to the Capitol each day to convince lawmakers that mandatory minimum sentences destroy… Read more »


November 20, 2013

Tide Has Shifted In Punishing Drug Crimes

(Idaho Press-Tribune Editorial) — As the budgets for government agencies at all levels — city, county, state and federal — get tighter and tighter and, in some cases, debt mounts higher and higher, many of us have had to take a hard look at our priorities. In some cases, we’ve made some major shifts in… Read more »