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.