State v. J.A. – First Degree Rape
Proposed in March 2013, the Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to hand down sentences below current mandatory minimums if:
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.
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:
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.
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 over punish 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:
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.
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:
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 the 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.
Identical versions of the Act were introduced in the House and Senate, H.R. 1695 and S. 619. Both have been referred to the 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 919-838-6643 or contact our law firm online.
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State v. J.A. – First Degree Rape
State v. B.S. – First Degree Murder
State v. E.D. – Identity Theft
State v. J.A. – First Degree Rape
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