Current Safety Valve Legislation
The Justice Safety Valve Act would, if passed, allow judges to give a sentence different from the mandatory minimum sentence in any federal case. To give a sentence other than the mandatory minimum term, the judge must first give both the prosecutor and the defendant notice and an opportunity to respond. If the judge gives a sentence other than the mandatory minimum, he/she would be required to explain, in writing, why the mandatory minimum term does not fulfill one of the purposes of punishment set by Congress in 18 U.S.C. section 3553(a) (e.g., rehabilitation, just punishment, public safety, deterrence). The prosecutor could appeal the judge’s decision to disregard the mandatory minimum sentence.
FAMM supports the Justice Safety Valve Act.
Introduced by: Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA)
Text of bill: Full text of this legislation
Introduced by: Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Text of bill: Full text of this legislation
The SAFE Justice Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill does not repeal any federal mandatory minimum sentences or reduce drug mandatory minimum sentences across the board, but instead limits the application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to the highest-level offenders, as Congress originally intended. The bill also fixes problems in the drug conspiracy and good time credit laws, reforms the federal compassionate release process, and permits prisoners to earn time off their sentences for completing rehabilitative programs, among many other reforms. FAMM supports the SAFE Justice Act.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917) is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on October 4, 2017, by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
If passed into law, the bill would, among other things, reduce several federal (not state) mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some federal prisoners; make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive; expand the “safety valve” exception for federal drug mandatory minimum sentences; and allow some federal prisoners to spend more time in less restrictive forms of Bureau of Prisons custody if they complete rehabilitative programs and productive activities in prison.
The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1933) is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). The bill does not repeal any federal mandatory minimum sentences, but instead reduces prison costs and populations by creating fairer, less costly minimum terms for low-level federal drug offenders.
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.