Rebecca Betts: Justice Sometimes Requires Discretion

Post Date: July 22, 2013

Rebecca Betts, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, wrote this op-ed in the Charleston Daily Mail about the importance of sentencing discretion and the Justice Safety Valve Act.

When I served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia in the mid-1990s, my office aggressively prosecuted dangerous criminals and sought life sentences for drug traffickers who used violence to achieve their ends.

I took seriously the awesome authority.

I was given to bring criminal charges on behalf of the U.S. government, and my top priority was to keep the communities in my jurisdiction safe.

There were times, however, when I found myself confronted with a low-level drug offender who faced a lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentence for reasons that seemed arbitrary at best.

I remember one case when an assistant U.S. attorney in my office told me about a defendant whom I will call Brian.

Unlike many of the drug defendants we prosecuted, Brian was in college and had a wife and young daughter. He had lost his football scholarship after sustaining a knee injury and turned to selling drugs to support his education and family.

The assistant U.S. attorney was uncomfortable with the sentence Brian was facing under the federal mandatory minimums regime, which I recall was in the 10-year range, and sought my approval for some type of alternative approach.

After meeting with Brian personally, I too was troubled that the pending indictment would require a sentence that was inappropriate, so I agreed to dismiss the federal charges in exchange for a guilty plea in state court.

I remember telling Brian that I was cutting him a big break and that I hoped he used the opportunity wisely.

As the years passed, I wondered what had happened to him.

In 2010, I received an email from Brian.

He told me he had been given probation on the state drug charge, which enabled him to finish college and begin a business career. He proudly shared that he and his wife were still married and now had three children.

Brian said his life was a happy one.

He wrote: “None of this would have been possible if not for that brief moment when my fate was in your hands and you decided that I was worth taking a chance on. “Since that day I have vowed to never let you down. . .

“I just wanted you to know that I did all I could do to make your decision the right decision.

“[This year] I will be honored here . . . for my professional achievements with my current company, as well as my personal commitment to community service with young adults.”

He attached a picture of his family.

It is one of the great ironies of my tenure as prosecutor that perhaps my finest prosecution decision was to dismiss a federal indictment. Brian still got punished, but he received a second chance that a mandatory prison sentence would not have allowed.

My decision turned a would-be long-term federal prisoner into a productive citizen and positive role model for his children and community. 

Recently, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a bipartisan bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act, that would enable judges to depart from the statutory minimum in those instances where the punishment just doesn’t fit the crime.

It is intended to give federal prosecutors the discretion they need when confronted with a case like Brian’s.

As a former federal prosecutor who knows that there are exceptions to every rule, I urge Sens. Rockefeller and Manchin to join in supporting this vital legislation.

Betts served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia from 1994 to 2001. She is currently an attorney in private practice in Charleston.