Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced bipartisan legislation Wednesday to allow judges greater flexibility in sentencing federal crimes where a mandatory minimum punishment is considered unnecessary.
The bipartisan Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 expands the so-called "safety valve" that allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in qualifying drug cases to all federal crimes. By giving judges this greater flexibility, they will not be forced to administer needlessly long sentences for certain offenders, which is a significant factor in the ever-increasing Federal prison population and the spiraling costs that steer more and more of the justice budget toward keeping people in prison, rather than investing in programs that keep our communities safe.
"As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, and that long sentences are sometimes necessary to keep criminals off the street and deter those who would commit violent crime," Leahy said. "Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake. I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them. A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer."
Paul said that "Our country's mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the Constitutional Separation of Powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer. This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties."
The federal prison budget has grown by nearly $2 billion in the last five years, and the increasing financial demand means less money for police on the streets and funding for crime prevention programs, as well as prisoner reentry programs that seek to avoid repeat offenders. The Judiciary Committee heard testimony last year on the costs of rising prison populations, and innovative ways that states including Vermont have adopted sentencing reforms and other policy changes to address the issue and ultimately prevent crime.
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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On the Introduction of S. 619, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013
March 20, 2013
Today I join with Senator Paul to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which will start to take on the problem of the ever-increasing Federal prison population and spiraling costs that spend more and more of our justice budget on keeping people in prison thereby reducing opportunities to do more to keep our communities safe. This bill will combat injustice in Federal sentencing and the waste of taxpayer dollars by allowing judges appropriate discretion in sentencing.
As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, and that long sentences are sometimes necessary to keep violent criminals off the street and deter those who would commit violent crime. I have come to believe, however, that mandatory minimum sentences do more harm than good. As Justice Kennedy said, "In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust."
Currently a "safety valve" provision allows low-level drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimum penalties if certain conditions are met. The bill we introduce today would extend that safety valve to all Federal crimes subject to mandatory minimum penalties, allowing a judge to impose a sentence other than a statutorily designated mandatory sentence in cases in which key factors are present. The judge would be required to provide notice to the parties and to state in writing the reasons justifying the alternative sentence.
The United States has a mass incarceration problem. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated grew by 700 percent. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of its prisoners. At the end of 2011,
2.2 million people were in jail or prison in the United States. That means we incarcerate roughly one in every 100 adults.
As of last week, the Federal prison population was over 217,000. Almost half of those men and women are imprisoned on drug charges. Compare this with 1980, when the Federal prison population was just 25,000. Since 2000 alone, the Federal prison population has increased by 55 percent.
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. At a time when our economy has been struggling to recover from the worst recession in the last 75 years and our budget is limited, we must look at the wasteful spending that occurs with over-incarceration.
At the Federal level, over the last five years, our prison budget has grown by nearly $2 billion. In 2007, we spent approximately $5.1 billion on Federal prisons. Last year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requested more than $6.8 billion. That means less money for Federal law enforcement, less aid to state and local law enforcement, and less funding for crime prevention programs and prisoner reentry programs. In short, we have less to spend on the kinds of programs that evidence has shown work best to keep crime rates down. Building more prisons and locking people up for longer and longer - especially nonviolent offenders - is not the best use of taxpayer money and is, in fact, an ineffective means of keeping our communities safe.
The proliferation of Federal mandatory minimum sentences is not the only factor driving the increase in incarceration rates, but it is an important factor. The number of mandatory minimum penalties in the Federal code nearly doubled from 1991 to 2011. Even those defendants not subject to mandatory minimums have seen their penalties increase as a result of mandatory penalties being incorporated into the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.
In addition to driving up our prison population, mandatory minimum penalties can lead to terribly unjust results in individual cases. This is why a large majority of judges oppose mandatory minimum sentences. In a 2010 survey by the United States Sentencing Commission of more than 600 Federal district court judges, nearly 70 percent agreed that the existing safety valve provision should be extended to all Federal offenses. That is exactly what our bill does. Judges, who hand down sentences and can see close up when they are appropriate and just, overwhelmingly oppose mandatory minimum sentences.
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. Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake. I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them. A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer.
This is a bipartisan issue. Sentencing reform works. States, including very conservative states like Texas, that have implemented sentencing reform have saved money and seen their crime rates drop.
I thank Senator Paul for his dedication to this cause and for working with me on this legislation. I hope other Senators will join us in advancing this legislation and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used more efficiently to better prevent crime rather than simply building more prisons.