New legislation was introduced today to create a new safety valve regarding the mandatory sentencing guidelines pertaining to federal crimes. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would give federal judges a safety valve, allowing them to sentence a person to less than the mandatory minimum in cases where such a sentence is considered too lengthy, unjust or unreasonable, or in cases where the sentence simply does not fit the offender or the crime. With federal detention facilities currently operating at 139 percent of capacity, such a safety valve could help stem the steady increase in the number of people under federal correctional supervision, many of them sentenced for federal drug crimes.

Not every criminal defendant would be eligible for sentencing under the mandatory minimum. Judges would not be required to use the safety valve and prosecutors would have the right to recommend the mandatory minimum sentence. Only specific criteria would make a person eligible for a lesser sentence. Furthermore, no right to such a sentence would be created by the new legislation.

Several instances have been cited where the mandatory minimum sentence produced seemingly ridiculous results based on the actions of a defendant. In the mid-1990s, a safety valve was introduced allowing some people convicted of first-time, low-level, nonviolent drug crimes to serve sentences less than the mandatory minimum. The law was in response to sentences for low-level offenders that were as severe as those given to drug kingpins.

While the legislation is a step in the right direction, it is clear that greater flexibility in sentencing is needed at the federal level. Judges should have greater discretion to give a reduced sentence when the circumstances warrant it.

Source: Reason.com, “Today Rand Paul and Pat Leahy Introduced a Bill to Fix Our Atrocious Federal Mandatory Minimum Laws,” by Mike Riggs, 20 March 2013

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