Bill Introduced to Provide Some Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Relief


I think the biggest problem in our criminal justice system for the past 25 years has been rigid mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Today, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul introduced the bi-partisan Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013. According to Sen. Leahy:

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.

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.

I'm waiting to receive a copy of the text of the bill before commenting further, but this appears to be a potentially big and very welcome change.

It also remains to be seen how DOJ responds, and what amendments will come from demands it be watered down. I don't think I've ever forgotten how Leahy allowed the Innocence Protection Act to go from big dollars to test DNA of those with innocence claims to $775 million to test old rape kits and find perpetrators, and $25 million over five years to test DNA of inmates with innocence claims. (More here.)

What began as the Innocence Protection Act ended up as the Justice For All Act, which was really a crime victim's bill. It also added $500 million for crime labs. The end result was over $1 billion for crime-fighting and victims and $25 million for inmates with innocence claims.

  • Enacts the Debbie Smith Backlog Grant Program, providing $755 million to test the backlog of over 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence awaiting analysis in our nation's crime labs;
  • 500 million goes to …programs to improve the capacity of crime labs to conduct DNA analysis, reduce non-DNA backlogs, train examiners, support sexual assault forensic examiner programs, and promote the use of DNA to identify missing persons;
  • Creates the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program and authorizes $25 million over five years to help states pay the costs of post-conviction DNA testing.

Here's the IPA introduced in 2000. Here's what was introduced in the Senate in 2002.

Here's Rep. Jerrome Nadler on the passing of the compromised bill:

I am pleased to support this bill because it represents a serious effort to combat crime, locate and apprehend rapists, and use powerful evidence to put them in prison.

I'm not criticizing Leahy, because he and Delahunt really had no choice due to the obstructionist crime warrior Republicans they had to deal with. The reality is if sentencing reformers want any relief at all, they have to settle. So I’m not quite ready to jump and down over it. As introduced, I’m sure the bill is great. Getting it passed in its current form may be another matter. As I wrote at the time the Innocence Protection Act compromise was reached:

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Sen. Patrick Lehay (D-VT) worked tirelessly to get this legislation passed for five years. With over 265 sponsors in the last Congress, some Republicans wouldn't budge and stymied the whole deal. After lengthy negotiations with Sensenbrenner and Hatch, some of the more vocal opponents of the bill, a deal was hammered out. It's as good as it's gonna get right now, and its worthy of support. It's also just a beginning. We have nothing but praise for those who worked so hard on behalf of the innocent imprisoned to get this through.

More on the compromise and transformation of the bill from one emphasizing wrongfully convicted inmates to a victim's crime bill here and here. As this Washington Post editorial in 2004 said:

A few years ago, when Mr. Leahy started pushing legislation to encourage post-conviction DNA testing at the state and federal level and improve the woeful quality of counsel in death penalty cases, the measure had real teeth. Now, however, compromise upon compromise has left the Innocence Protection Act, which has been merged with a bipartisan package with President Bush's initiative to reduce the backlog of physical evidence awaiting DNA testing, a shadow of its former self.

So Kudos to Sen. Leahy and Rand for introducing this bill. I hope they started big, making everyone eligible for a safety salve, so that when the watering down occurs, there's still something to shout about. I'll update after a copy becomes available.