New GA Safety Valve Continues Common Sense Trend

Post Date: April 25, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC — FAMM President Julie Stewart praised Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, the Georgia legislature, and the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians for their work in establishing a new sentencing safety valve that will prevent first-time and low-level drug offenders from receiving excessive mandatory minimum sentences. The safety valve was included in HB 349, which Governor Deal signed into law today. 

“It’s exciting to see Georgia join the growing ranks of states that recognize that one-size sentencing laws do not fit all offenders. Governor Deal and the bipartisan group of lawmakers who worked together to enact this new safety valve deserve a great deal of credit. This common sense reform will keep Georgians safe and save money,” said Stewart. 

HB 349, among other things, expands the ability of judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenses. Under current law, only the district attorney can move the sentencing court to reduce a mandatory minimum. HB 349, which borrows from the federal drug safety valve that FAMM helped draft in 1994, would authorize courts to reduce a mandatory minimum if the court finds that: (1) the defendant was not a leader/organizer of the offense; (2) the defendant did not use a weapon; (3) the defendant’s conduct did not result in death or substantial bodily injury; (4) the defendant does not have a prior felony conviction; and (5) the interests of justice would not be served by forcing the defendant to serve the mandatory minimum prison sentence. 

If a judge determines that a drug defendant qualifies for the safety valve, the judge can impose a sentence that is up to 50 percent below the statutory minimum.

For example, if a defendant were convicted of selling 200 grams (less than half of a pound) of methamphetamine today, he would automatically receive a 15-year prison sentence. Under the new law, if the court found that the defendant was a first-time offender, was nonviolent, and was unlikely to re-offend, the judge could sentence the defendant to any term equal to 7½ years or more. The new law also authorizes a court to depart from the mandatory minimum for an individual convicted of a serious violent felony when the prosecutor agrees that a shorter sentence would be appropriate.

“FAMM continues to believe that the best way to improve public safety is to repeal mandatory minimum laws so that defendants can get the individualized punishment they deserve, not a cookie-cutter approach that ignores relevant distinctions between offenders. Next to repealing mandatory sentencing laws outright, however, enacting a safety valve is the best approach,” said Stewart. 

On March 20, FAMM released “Turning Off the Spigot: How Sentencing Safety Valves Can Help States Protect Public Safety and Save Money.”  The report highlights how safety valve laws are helping states save money and keeping crime rates low. On the same day the report was released, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a new, FAMM-backed federal safety valve proposal. “The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013” (S.619) has been endorsed by Americans for Tax Reform and Justice Fellowship, among others.

On April 24, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the House version of the Justice Safety Valve Act.