Sentencing Discretion For Judges? A Look At The Current And Proposed Safety Valve Acts

Proposed in March 2013, the Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to hand down sentences below current mandatory minimums if:

  • The mandatory minimum sentence would not accomplish the goal that a sentence be sufficient, but not greater than necessary
  • Notice is given to both the defendant and the prosecutor of the intent to sentence below a mandatory minimum
  • The factors the judged considered in arriving at the lower sentence are put in writing and must be based on the language in based on the language of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)

This proposed updated safety valve would apply to any federal conviction that has been prescribed a mandatory minimum sentence. As written, it would not apply retroactively; inmates already serving a mandatory minimum sentence would not be allowed to request a lesser sentence or re-sentencing based on the Act. It would only apply to federal sentencing; North Carolina would have to enact its own legislation to change state mandatory minimum sentencing.

Scaling Back On An Ineffective Attempt To "Get Tough" On Crime

In 2012, there were 219,000 inmates being held in federal institutions run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In 1980, there were only 25,000. Approximately one-quarter of the Justice Department's budget is spent on corrections. Over 10,000 people received federal mandatory minimum sentences in 2010.

In addition to these statistics, the application of mandatory minimum sentences leads to absurdly long sentences being imposed, at great taxpayer expense, on non-violent individuals. The organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) details how mandatory minimums have resulted in substantial - and unfair - punishments for low-level crimes, including these two examples:

  • Weldon Angelos: Mr. Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in prison after making several small drug sales to a government informant. Several weapons were found in his home and the informant reported seeing a weapon in Mr. Angelos' possession during at least two buys. He was charged with several counts of possessing a gun during a drug trafficking offense, leading to the substantial sentence, despite having no major criminal record, dealing only in small amounts of weed and never using a weapon during the course of a drug transaction.
  • John Hise: Mr. Hise was sentenced to 10 years on a drug conspiracy charge. He had sold red phosphorous to a friend who was involved in meth manufacturing. Mr. Hise stopped aiding his friend, but not before authorities had caught on. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years despite police finding no evidence of red phosphorous in his home during a search. Mr. Hise was ineligible for the current safety valve law because of a possession and DUI offense already on his record.

The use of mandatory minimums that allow little discretion for judges to depart to a lower sentence have contributed to the growing prison population and expense of housing those arbitrarily required to spend years in prison. There is certainly room for improvement. Expanding this safety valve to all mandatory minimum sentences would reduce the long-term prison population while still ensuring that the goals of sentencing are met.

Setting An Appropriate Punishment For The Actual Circumstances Of The Crime Committed

The first question a federal judge must consider in deciding whether or not he or she will sentence a person convicted of a federal offense below the mandatory minimum under the proposed Act is whether the mandatory minimum sentence would overpunish that person. In other words, would the mandatory minimum put the person in prison for longer than is necessary to meet the goals of sentencing?

According to the U.S. Code, the goals of sentencing include:

  • Keeping the public safe
  • Punishing the individual for his or her crime(s)
  • Preventing similar crimes from being punished by substantially different sentences in districts across the United Sates
  • Deterring others from breaking the law

The proposed Act would ensure that the goals of sentencing return to the forefront of determining an appropriate prison term rather than substituting the judgment of Congress for that of the presiding judge during the sentencing phase of the federal criminal process.

Do Federal Judges Currently Have Discretion With Mandatory Minimums?

There are currently just under 200 mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes on the books, but only federal drug offenses are subject to an existing sentencing safety valve. The actual text of the existing sentencing safety valve can be found at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f).

In order for a federal judge to apply the existing safety valve to sentencing for a federal drug crime, he or she must make the following findings:

  • No one was injured during the commission of the drug offense
  • The defendant has little to no prior criminal history
  • The offense was non-violent; no weapon - such as a gun - was used
  • The defendant was not a kingpin, leader of a cartel or other otherwise the organizer of the actual offense
  • The defendant cooperated with the prosecutor in providing information about the offense

Mandatory minimums in federal sentencing

These criteria are strict and minimize the number of people who could be saved from lengthy, arbitrary prison sentences. The legal possession of a gun during the commission of a drug crime has been used to deny application of the safety valve as has prior criminal history that included only misdemeanor or petty offenses. In effect, the current safety valve legislation allows only about one-quarter of those sentenced on federal drug offenses to take advantage of the deviation from mandatory minimums each year.

Another exception to mandatory minimum sentencing, substantial assistance, is often unavailable to low-level drug offenders. Often those who are tasked with transporting or selling drugs, or who are considered mules, have little if any information about the actual drug ring itself. These people are then not eligible for a reduced sentence below a mandatory minimum because they have no information to provide prosecutors; they are incapable of providing substantial assistance.

The Future Of The Act Remains With Congress

Identical versions of the Act were introduced in the House and Senate, H.R. 1695 and S. 619. Both have been referred to committee for review. The proposed Safety Valve Act would expand the application of the safety valve beyond drug crimes and would allow judges to ensure that sentencing goals are met while not over-punishing individuals and overcrowding the nation's prison system.

However, the Safety Valve Act is no substitute for an experienced federal defense lawyer on the side of anyone facing federal charges; it is not a get out of jail card. If a judge deviates below mandatory minimums in sentencing, he or she would still be required to apply the federal sentencing guidelines in determining an appropriate sentence.

An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can answer any questions you have about mandatory minimum sentencing and what to expect during a federal criminal prosecution.

This informational article about the proposed Justice Safety Valve Act is provided by the attorneys of Roberts Law Group, PLLC, a criminal defense law firm dedicated to the rights of those accused of a crime throughout North Carolina. To learn more about the firm, please like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter or Google+ to get the latest updates on safety and criminal defense matters in North Carolina. For a free consultation with a Charlotte defense lawyer from Roberts Law Group, please call 704-251-2501 or contact our law firm online.

North Carolina vs. M.W.
Charge: Charge: Robbery with A Dangerous Weapon (4 Counts), First Degree Burglary, Conspiracy to Commit Robbery with A Dangerous Weapon
Facing: 12 - 17 years in prison
Result: Dismissed

An incarcerated defendant accused our client of participating in the robbery of a group of youth at a party. We were able to raise doubt as to the credibility of this individual. In the end, the prosecutor dismissed these charges, citing a lack of evidence.