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 or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. However, safety valves save taxpayers money because they allow courts to give shorter, more appropriate prison sentences to offenders who do not need or deserve more time in prison. This saves our scarce taxpayer 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, more than 90,000 nonviolent drug offenders have received fairer sentences because of it, saving taxpayers billions. Each year, about one in five federal nonviolent drug offenders receives a fairer, less costly sentence because of the drug safety valve.

But we can make our safety valve law even more effective. Here are some of the problems with current law:

  • Mere presence of even a lawfully purchased and registered gun in a person’s home is enough to disqualify a nonviolent drug offender from the safety valve,
  • Even very minor prior infractions (e.g., careless driving) that resulted in no prison time can disqualify an otherwise worthy nonviolent drug offender from the safety valve, 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, and expand the existing drug safety valve to cover more people.

Reform Bills Pending in the 114th Congress:

  • The Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced in the U.S. Senate (S. 353) by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 706) by Congressmen Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). FAMM supports this legislation and is urging lawmakers to  pass it during the 114th Congress. If this bill passes, it will
    • Save taxpayers $24 billion over 20 years and reduce federal prison populations and overcrowding by reducing the length of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders: life without parole sentences would be reduced to 25 years (Senate version) or 20 years (House version); 20-year sentences would be reduced to 10-year terms; 10-year terms would be reduced to 5-year terms; and 5-year terms would be reduced to 2-year terms (these reforms would not be retroactive);
    • Prevent the need to build new prisons and pay for additional correctional officers;
    • Narrowly expand the existing drug safety valve so that minor criminal records don’t disqualify otherwise nonviolent, low-level drug offenders from receiving appropriate sentences (this reform would not be retroactive);
    • Make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively applicable to 8,800 federal prisoners, 87% of which are black;
    • Address overcriminalization by requiring government agencies to compile laws and regulations that carry criminal penalties and make that information available to the public. 
  • The Justice Safety Valve Act — introduced in the U.S. Senate (S. 502) by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 920) by Congressmen Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). FAMM supports this legislation and is urging lawmakers to pass it during the 114th Congress.If this bill passes, it will
    • Save the Justice Department money and help reduce prison populations and costs;
    • Increase fairness in the criminal justice system by creating a safety valve that allows courts to sentence a person below any applicable mandatory minimum sentence when that minimum sentence violates one of the purposes of punishment

Safety Valve News

March 29, 2016

New FAMM-ALEC Report Highlights Benefits of Sentencing Reform

Contact: Leila McDowell,, 202.822.6700 Washington, DC — A new report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) argues sentencing discretion for nonviolent and drug offenses can ease prison overcrowding, save tax dollars, and protect public safety. The new report, Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Reform Saves States Money and Reduces… Read more »

October 8, 2015

FAMM: House Sentencing Reform Compromise Another Step in Right Direction

October 8, 2015Contact: Jessica Breslin, 202-822-6700, WASHINGTON, DC — FAMM Government Affairs Counsel Molly Gill today praised a new U.S. House of Representatives sentencing reform bill, calling it “more evidence that Congress is finally ready to fix our federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.” The bill, titled “The Sentencing Reform Act,” was introduced by House Judiciary… Read more »

October 1, 2015

FAMM Praises Senate Sentencing Reform Compromise, Calls Mandatory Sentencing Reforms Long Overdue

UPDATE: Senate Judiciary bill summary as well as a section by section factsheet. Full text of bill available here: Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 2123 October 1, 2015 Contact: Mike Riggs, 202-822-6700, or Molly Gill, WASHINGTON, DC — FAMM President Julie Stewart today praised a new U.S. Senate sentencing and prison reform bill, calling it one… Read more »

September 4, 2015

Families Against Mandatory Minimums Praises “Self-Defense Protection Act”

MEDIA Contact: Greg Newburn, FAMM State Policy Director, (352) 682-2542 TALLAHASSEE – Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) State Policy Director Greg Newburn urged Florida lawmakers to support the “Self-Defense Protection Act,” filed yesterday by Representative Neil Combee (R, Polk City) and Senator Aaron Bean (R, Jacksonville). The bill – HB 135 and SB 228 –… Read more »

July 16, 2015

Speaker John Boehner “Absolutely” Supports the SAFE Justice Act

In a press conference today, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters that he “absolutely” supports the SAFE Justice Act–which was introduced earlier this month by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R) and Bobby Scott (D), and 18 other bipartisan co-sponsors–and would like to see it come to the House floor. You can watch Speaker Boehner’s remarks… Read more »