The Justice Safety Valve Act FAQ

Post Date: December 5, 2016

Frequently Asked Questions About
S. 353 / H.R. 706, The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015

Q1: What is the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015?

A: The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 is a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate (S. 353) by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). An identical version of the bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 706) by Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). The bill, if passed, would create a brand-new, broad “safety valve” that would apply to all federal crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences. If passed, the Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges to sentence federal offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence whenever that minimum term does not fulfill the goals of punishment and other sentencing criteria listed at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

Q2: Is the bill a law?

A: No. The bill cannot become a law until it is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. We have a long way to go yet before the bill becomes law. FAMM is supporting both the Senate and House bills. Keep checking our website for updates about the bills’ progress.

Q3: Would the Justice Safety Valve Act benefit people who are already in federal prison?

A: No. If passed, the bill would only benefit people sentenced in federal courts after it becomes a law. In other words, the bill, in its current state, is not retroactive.

Q4: Where can I find a copy of the bill’s language?

A: A copy of the bill can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php. On the home page, underneath “Search Bill Summary & Status,” click on the button next to “Bill Number.” Then, enter “S. 353” or “H.R. 706” in the search bar, and click on the “Search” button. You can then see the text of the bill and all the actions the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives have taken on the bill.

Q5: What can I do to help the Justice Safety Valve Act become law?

A: There are two things you can do to help FAMM advocate for the Justice Safety Valve Act’s passage:

  1.  Write to your Senators and Representative today and ask them to cosponsor and support S. 353 and H.R. 706, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015. Send emails to both of your members of Congress using our auto-generated email form. More cosponsors mean more support for a bill, increasing the chances that it will be heard in the proper committees and be voted on.
  2. Donate to FAMM online or send a check to FAMM, 1100 H NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005.

Q6: Who would benefit from the Justice Safety Valve Act if it becomes law?

A: If it becomes law, the Justice Safety Valve Act would potentially help anyone facing a federal mandatory minimum sentence in federal court. However, the bill does not require federal judges to sentence anyone below the mandatory minimum sentence. The bill does not give any defendant a legal right to a sentence below the federal mandatory minimum. The bill would only allow judges to give sentences below the mandatory minimum if specific factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) call for a shorter sentence.

Q7: Who would NOT benefit from the Justice Safety Valve Act if it becomes law?

A: The bill, if passed, would not benefit

  • Anyone sentenced in state courts for state offenses
  • Any federal offenders who are charged with federal crimes that do NOT carry mandatory minimum sentences
  • Anyone currently serving a mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison.

Q8: Would the Justice Safety Valve Act change any state laws?

A: No. The bill, if passed, would only change federal law and would only benefit people sentenced in federal courts, not state courts.

Q9: Would the Justice Safety Valve Act give federal judges unlimited power at sentencing?

A: No. The bill includes several safeguards built into its structure to prevent judges from giving unreasonable sentences:

  • Judges are not required to use the safety valve
  • Judges must base their below-minimum sentences on the criteria listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), not merely substitute their own judgment for the dictates of Congress
  • Offenders do not have a right to a sentence below the mandatory minimum
  • Before judges apply the safety valve, the prosecutor has the right to argue that the mandatory minimum sentence is the correct one
  • Judges must place their reasons for sentencing below the mandatory minimum on the record, in writing
  • If the judge does sentence below the mandatory minimum, he/she would then consult the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which would guide the judge’s use of his/her discretion
  • If the judge applies the safety valve and the prosecutor believes the sentence is unreasonably low (i.e., too short), that sentence can be appealed and possibly reversed by a higher court.

The proposed safety valve is not a “get out of jail free” card. People would still go to prison, and many people might still get the mandatory minimum sentence. The Justice Safety Valve Act would simply ensure that no one goes to federal prison for longer than is necessary to keep society safe.

Q10: Under the bill, what factors would federal judges be required to consider before they could give a sentence below the federal mandatory minimum?

A: The Justice Safety Valve Act would require judges to decide whether the federal mandatory minimum sentence meets the requirements of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). This statute requires judges, after consulting a list of considerations, to impose a sentence long enough but not too long to meet the goals of punishment. These goals are: to keep the public safe, provide a just punishment for the crime, prevent unwarranted sentencing disparities between similarly-blameworthy offenders who commit similar crimes, and deter others from committing crimes. Under the bill, if passed, a judge could sentence a federal defendant below the mandatory minimum if the mandatory sentence was excessive in light of these goals.

Q11: Is there currently a safety valve under federal law?

A: Yes. Under current federal law, there are over 190 mandatory minimum sentences, but only those for drug offenses have a “safety valve.” That safety valve is located at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f). It is a strict, five-part test that FAMM helped Congress create in 1994. To qualify for the federal drug safety valve, the court must find that: (1) no one was harmed during the offense; (2) the offender has little or no history of criminal convictions; (3) the offender did not use violence or a gun; (4) the individual was not a leader or organizer of the offense; and (5) the offender told the prosecutor all that he knows about the offense. So far, over 90,000 federal drug offenders have received fairer sentences because of the federal drug safety valve.

Q12: Why is a broader federal safety valve necessary?

A: The existing federal drug safety valve is too narrow. First, it only applies to federal drug offenders. Second, mandatory minimum sentences are still applied in federal drug cases even when those punishments do not fit the crime or the offender. In 2014, for example, only about 16% of all federal drug offenders received the safety valve, despite the fact that:

  • nearly half of all federal drug offenders had little or no criminal history;
  • 84% did not have or use any weapons; and
  • only 7% were considered leaders, managers, or supervisors of others.

The main reasons people fail to qualify for the federal drug safety valve are:

  1. Criminal history: Virtually all prior felony convictions (e.g., drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia) are counted when determining a person’s criminal history points, and even some misdemeanor and petty offenses (e.g., careless driving, insufficient funds check) are counted if they resulted in sentences of more than a year of probation or at least 30 days.
  2. The presence of a gun: Mere possession or even a lawfully obtained and registered gun is enough to disqualify an otherwise nonviolent, low-level offender from the safety valve – even one who did not use or intend to use the weapon. 

The Justice Safety Valve Act would apply to all federal mandatory minimum sentences, not just those for federal drug crimes, and it would allow judges to consider sentences below the mandatory minimum term in cases where the person does not qualify for the existing drug safety valve.

Q13: How would the Justice Safety Valve Act benefit the public?

A: The bill would have three major benefits for the public:

  1. Protect the public – Passing the Justice Safety Valve Act wouldn’t mean that people get off without any prison time, just that they don’t get any more prison time than they deserve. Currently, federal prisons are overcrowded, and almost half of all federal offenders are nonviolent drug offenders, not violent criminals. The Justice Safety Valve Act would help prevent prison overcrowding and save scarce prison space and resources for people who are a real threat to the community.
  2. Give courts flexibility to punish enough – but not too much. Safety valves allow courts – in narrow circumstances – to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum if that sentence is too lengthy, unjust or unreasonable, or doesn’t fit the offender or the crime. The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal courts to prevent unreasonable or absurd outcomes, such as a low-level drug courier getting the same sentence as a major drug kingpin.
  3. Save taxpayers money – or focus that money on violent offenders. When courts sentence people below the mandatory minimum term, people spend less time in prison than they otherwise would be required to, which costs taxpayers less in corrections costs. Federal prison costs are consuming too much of the Justice Department’s budget. This means that money that could be spent on more police or capturing violent criminals and terrorists is instead being spent to keep nonviolent people locked up. It now costs taxpayers over $29,000 to put one person in federal prison for one year. If a person receives the benefit of the Justice Safety Valve Act and is sentenced to five years in prison instead of the 10-year mandatory minimum, for example, taxpayers and the Justice Department would save $140,000 in corrections costs. These savings could be spent on things like better law enforcement or programs to help prepare people leaving prison to lead law abiding lives and avoid criminal conduct.

Q14: Will FAMM keep us updated of the bill’s progress?

A: Yes. Keep checking our website for updates about the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 and visit FAMM’s Justice Safety Valve Act bill page for more information.


 LEGAL DISCLAIMER:

FAMM cannot provide legal advice, representation, referrals, or guidance. Nothing on this page is intended to be legal advice or should be relied on as legal advice. If you or your loved one feel that you need legal advice, consult with an attorney.