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April 01, 2013

Senate bill would allow federal judges sentencing discretion

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation March 20 addressing the problem of the increasing federal prison population and spiraling prison costs.

S. 619, knows as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would “combat injustice in federal sentencing and the waste of taxpayer dollars by allowing judges appropriate discretion in sentencing,” Leahy said in a statement accompanying introduction of the bill.

The measure would extend the current safety valve, which allows certain low-level drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimum penalties, to all federal crimes subject to mandatory minimum penalties. The provisions would allow a judge to impose a sentence other than a statutorily designated mandatory sentence in cases in which key factors are present.

Those factors may  include the fact that a defendant does not have a serious criminal history, the individual did not use violence, the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person, the defendant was not a leader or organizer of the crime, and the defendant told the truth to authorities. A judge would be required to provide notice to the parties and explain in writing the reasons for the alternative sentence.

“The United States has a mass incarceration problem,” Leahy said, pointing out that as of early March the federal prison population was more than 217,000 – a 55 percent increase since 2000. Almost half of these inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes.

In addition, over the past five years, the prison budget has grown by nearly $2 billion from $5.1 billion to $6.8 billion.

“As more and more people are incarcerated for longer and longer, the resulting costs have placed an enormous strain on the Justice Department’s budget and have at the same time severely limited the ability to enact policies that prevent crimes effectively and efficiently,” Leahy said.

The number of mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal code nearly doubled from 1991 to 2011, and such penalties can lead to terrible unjust results, Leahy said. Because of this, he said, judges overwhelmingly oppose mandatory minimum sentences and agree that the existing safety valve should be extended to all federal crimes.

“Congress has too often moved in the wrong direction by imposing new mandatory minimum sentences unsupported by evidence while failing to reauthorize crucial programs like the Second Chance Act to rehabilitate prisoners who will be released to rejoin our communities.” he explained. 

The ABA, which has longstanding policy opposing mandatory minimum sentences, supports S. 619 and reauthorization of the Second Chance Act.

For hearings last year before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, who was then ABA president, submitted a statement for the record stating that a disproportionate investment in prison expansion has diminished attention to viable and fiscally sound alternatives to prison and undermined the concept that prison should be the sanction of last resort. Successful bipartisan reforms at the state level, including removing mandatory minimums for first-time offenders, have led to the first overall decline in state prison populations since 1980, he said in his statement.

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