WASHINGTON, D.C. – Testifying this morning before the U.S. House subcommittee that funds the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Prisons (BOP), FAMM President Julie Stewart urged Congress to enact a broad sentencing “safety valve” in order to cut wasteful spending and reduce prison overcrowding.
Yesterday, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced S. 619, “The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013,” legislation that authorizes judges to give less prison time than the mandatory minimum sentence requires when doing so would protect public safety and fulfill the goals of punishment. If enacted, the bill could save the DOJ and BOP money and prison space at a time when federal prisons are at 139 percent of their capacity and consuming a full quarter of the DOJ’s budget.
“Most witnesses here today are asking for money,” Stewart testified to the subcommittee. “I’m here today to tell you how you can save it. … There are too many nonviolent offenders in our prisons. … The Justice Safety Valve Act isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It wouldn’t mean that people get off without any prison time, just that they don’t get any more prison time than is necessary to keep us safe. 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 save $140,000 in corrections costs. These savings could be spent on more police or drug court programs or violent criminals and terrorists.”
Stewart’s written testimony included other reforms BOP could implement today to reduce its dangerously overcrowded prisons. For example, she told members of the subcommittee that they should push BOP to expand its use of compassionate release, a congressionally-authorized early release program. Last December, FAMM and Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in the US Federal Prisons,” a comprehensive examination of how this early release program works in the federal system. The report explains how Congress gave federal courts the authority to grant early release – commonly referred to as “compassionate release” – for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. That authority is being frustrated, however, because the BOP must first bring motions to federal court on behalf of prisoners, something BOP rarely does.
Finally, Ms. Stewart urged the subcommittee to scrutinize the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) within DOJ. After noting the findings of the recent Inspector General investigation into the mishandling of Clarence Aaron’s application for a sentence commutation, Stewart said, “Without a sentencing safety valve like the one we are proposing, our current system has just one safety valve left: executive clemency. And that’s not being used, either out of bureaucratic misconduct or presidential neglect. But we can’t talk about prison overcrowding and reserving prison space for the most dangerous when we keep people like Clarence Aaron in prison for life for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense.”
Read Ms. Stewart’s written testimony for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.
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