Federal Bureau Of Prisons Severely Overcrowded due to Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses
WASHINGTON, DC—Today, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, S. 619, which will provide federal judges more discretion in sentencing all cases by allowing them to sentence below the mandatory minimum, if appropriate.
The proposed bill would provide greater flexibility in federal sentencing, and judges would no longer be handcuffed to giving out federal mandatory minimum sentences. The existing “safety valve” mechanism only applies in drug cases, but just under one fourth of drug law offenders have benefitted from it. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would widen the existing safety valve application to all offenses.
“Passage of this bill will hopefully mean more judges won’t give low-level drug law offenders draconian sentences reserved for drug kingpins,” said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Research has shown that more than half of all federal drug law offenders had little or no criminal history but they make up more than half of all federal prisoners.”
The use of mandatory minimum sentencing has been identified by the Congressional Research Service to be one of the driving factors in the overcrowding crisis, as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BoP) population has increased from about 25,000 in 1980 to nearly 219,000 in 2012. The BoP is currently operating at 139 percent capacity and funding for federal prisons now makes up almost a quarter of the budget for the U.S. Department of Justice – and is projected to increase to 30 percent by 2020. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has also concluded that mandatory minimum penalties apply too broadly, are unduly severe, and are applied inconsistently in the federal system which has caused an the explosion in population and cost.
Earlier in the year, while outlining Senate Judiciary Committee priorities, Leahy, a former prosecutor, said that the nation’s reliance on mandatory minimums has been a “great mistake” and should be eliminated.
“Congress must reexamine mandatory minimum sentencing to determine whether they are necessary and appropriate while also analyzing the racial disparities that have arisen in the imposition of mandatory sentences. Tyler said. “This bill is a step in the right direction. While overdue, the recent reform of the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity did not do enough to alleviate mass incarceration, or racial disparities, in the federal system.”