WASHINGTON, D.C. – FAMM President Julie Stewart today praised the introduction of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 in the U.S. Senate (S. 353) and the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 706). This is a bipartisan, bicameral federal bill that would help reduce high federal prison costs and populations. The bill, introduced in the Senate by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rand Paul (R-KY), and by Congressmen Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Robert Scott (D-VA), creates a “safety valve” that allows federal courts to give sentences shorter than those called for by the mandatory minimum sentence when a shorter sentence is necessary to prevent unjust punishments, protect the public, ensure better rehabilitation or victim restitution, or avoid irrational sentencing outcomes. The Senators and Congressmen previously put forth this legislation in the 113th Congress, and it is the first sentencing reform proposal to be introduced in the 114th Congress.
“This legislation puts Congress back on the path to meaningful, bipartisan sentencing reform,” said Stewart. “This is the first of what we hope and expect will be many proposals to get at the root of the enormous growth in the federal prison population and its unsustainable cost to taxpayers. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are outdated, expensive policies that don’t make us safer and destroy the fabric of communities. Giving courts flexibility to reserve mandatory minimum sentences for the worst of the worst is long overdue. It’s a fix the public will welcome.”
Senators Paul and Leahy and Congressmen Scott and Massie have long championed the reform of mandatory minimum sentences as the key to solving serious budget and public safety concerns at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Currently, federal prisons are overcrowded, at 132 percent of their capacity. Half of all inmates are nonviolent drug offenders, and many are serving decades for their crimes because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress created in the 1980s. The FY2016 budget proposal from the White House, released this week, shows that Bureau of Prison costs would be increased by over $210 million, far outstripping funding increases for victim services, immigration enforcement, and the FBI. Under the president’s proposal, federal prisons would consume 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, a financial situation the department has called “unsustainable.” The DOJ, along with hundreds of other civil rights advocates, faith groups, law enforcement officials, and victim representatives, have expressed support for reforming mandatory minimum sentences to ensure that funding is preserved for top public safety priorities.
The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 authorizes federal courts to give a sentence other than the statutory mandatory minimum sentence only after finding, among other things, that providing a particular defendant a shorter sentence – say, seven or eight years in prison for a drug offense rather than the 10 year mandatory minimum – will not jeopardize public safety. The bill does not require judges to impose shorter sentences and preserves the existing mandatory minimum terms.
FAMM was involved in the creation of the only existing federal safety valve, which is a strict test that has allowed courts to give 90,000 nonviolent federal drug offenders fairer sentences since 1995. The existing safety valve – applicable only to drug offenders – has saved taxpayers millions in unnecessary prison costs. During this same period, the nation’s crime rate has dropped to its lowest level in a generation.