A Step Toward More Rational Sentencing Policy

On Wednesday, Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a bipartisan bill titled the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013. Identical to the legislation introduced last month by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), this bill would authorize federal judges to pass sentences below federal mandatory minimums in cases where assigning the mandatory sentence would be excessive, and where a shorter sentence would not endanger public safety.

A press release on Rep. Massie’s website reports:

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would expand the current “safety valve” provision to include all federal crimes, allowing federal judges to tailor sentences on a case-by-case basis. This would also reduce the bloated federal prison population.

Essentially then, this bill would return some discretion to federal judges by no longer requiring them to sentence first-time and/or low-level nonviolent offenders to prison terms intended for high-level drug kingpins and major criminals. The fact is that existing federal mandatory minimum sentences result in many low-level nonviolent drug offenders receiving lengthy prison terms that do not fit their crimes.

The introduction of this legislation comes at a time when the federal prison population is nearly nine times larger than it was in 1980, facilities are increasingly overcrowded (39% over the rated capacity in 2011), and the system has becoming more expensive to maintain. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses are largely to blame for this, with inmates convicted for these type of offenses making up nearly half (47.3 percent) of all federal prisoners as well as the largest portion of newly admitted federal inmates.

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would help ensure that these types of offenders are not sent to prison for longer than is necessary to keep society safe, therefore saving prison space and resources for those who pose a larger threat to society, such as violent criminals.

While the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 neither repeals federal mandatory minimum sentences nor requires judges to ignore them if it would be appropriate to do so—both of which would be good policies—it nevertheless represents a welcome step toward reducing the size of the federal prison population, as well as the costs that come with maintaining it, all without compromising on public safety.