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 pose less of a public safety threat. 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 95,000 nonviolent drug offenders have received fairer sentences because of it, saving taxpayers billions. But it is a very narrow exception: in FY 2015, only 13 percent of all drug offenders qualified for the exception.

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 or car 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 low-level 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 low-level 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 low-level offenders.

Reform Bills Pending in the 115th Congress:


Safety Valve News

September 20, 2017

William Forrester

William Forrester became addicted to pain medication after surgery. In the fierce grip of his disease, he obtained oxycodone with a fake prescription. He badly needed help with his addiction; instead he is now in state prison for a mandatory 15 years. “The pain never seemed to go away, no matter how much medication I… Read more »

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 »