Mandatory Minimum Sentences Challenged in Proposed Bill

On May 16, Sens. Rand Paul, Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley reintroduced to the U.S. Senate the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bill that would empower judges to set prison sentences below mandatory minimums in certain cases, including those associated with drug crimes.

Reps. Bobby Scott and Thomas Massie are reintroducing a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This isn’t about legalizing drugs,” Paul wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “It is about making the punishment more fitting and not ruining more lives.”

The proposal comes after Attorney General Jeff Sessions set new directives for charging decisions in federal cases. In a letter released on May 10, he wrote that prosecutors should pursue the most serious available offense.

“By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” wrote Sessions.

Mandatory sentencing sets a minimum number of years an offender will be incarcerated for specific crimes. Many of these offenses involve drugs. Leahy said longer sentences stem from the failed war on drugs, an aggressive, decades-long federal campaign designed to combat illegal drug activity.

Paul took issue with Sessions’ intentions. The senator claims that the attorney general’s guidelines would worsen problems with the U.S. criminal justice system. Instead, the government should treat drug abuse as a public health crisis, he said.

The Justice Safety Valve Act

The Justice Safety Valve Act aims to prevent unjust criminal punishments by implementing a “safety valve” for federal crimes. This provision allows judges to sentence offenders below the mandatory minimum time frame if certain conditions are met.

The bill could help combat overcrowded prisons and ensure sentences are appropriate based on the crime. The law would also reduce correctional spending, which accounts for nearly one-third of the Department of Justice’s annual budget.

“Our bill will give discretion back to federal judges so that they can consider all the facts, issues and circumstances before sentencing,” Scott said in a statement.

The original version of this legislation was introduced in February 2015. However, it did not receive approval from Congress.

Mandatory Minimums in the United States

Mandatory minimum sentences in the United States have disproportionately incarcerated minorities and have kept people behind bars for longer periods of time.

In fiscal 2015, the United States Sentencing Commission received more than 71,000 cases, according to the agency’s website. Offenders were convicted of a crime carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in about 22 percent of these cases.

Among people convicted of a crime with a mandatory minimum punishment that fiscal year, 41.5 percent were Hispanic, 28.9 percent were black and 27.2 percent were white. Other races represented 2.4 percent of the total.

Mandatory minimum sentences are widely associated with drug crimes.

Nearly 48 percent of the 20,115 drug offenders sentenced in fiscal 2015 were convicted of a crime with a mandatory minimum punishment, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. More than half of these individuals faced that penalty during the sentencing process.

The average sentence length of drug offenders who faced a mandatory minimum penalty during sentencing was 124 months. Conversely, the average sentence for drug offenders not convicted of a crime with a mandatory minimum penalty was 39 months.

The passing of the Justice Safety Valve Act could help reduce mandatory minimum punishments, easing the burden incarceration has on the country.

“Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionally affect minorities and low-income communities while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” Paul said in a statement.

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