To Fix Our Broken Criminal Justice System, Start by Reforming Mandatory Minimums
Nick Giles, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Fellow

The New York Times recently endorsed a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would give federal judges more discretion in departing from rigid mandatory minimums when sentencing. The Paul-Leahy Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 gives judges the freedom to impose a sentence below the minimum set by statute when a sentence would otherwise fail to serve the goals of punishment as defined by the federal criminal code. Those goals include promoting respect for the rule of law, adequately deterring criminal conduct, and ensuring public safety.

Federal mandatory minimums take sentencing out of the hands of judges, who have the opportunity to evaluate offenders on an individual basis and learn of their personal circumstances, and require judges to impose lengthy and inflexible sentences based on rigid, standardized factors that fail to tell the whole story of the individual offender. As a method of calibrating punishment, this is myopic, and invites injustice.

The results of this broken system are predictable.  Across the country, federal prisons are bursting at the seams. And not with the violent offenders we want to see behind bars—they represent just over 6% of the federal prison population, down from 12% fifteen years ago—but largely (and increasingly) with nonviolent drug offenders. In fact, drug offenders make up half of the roughly 218,000 men and women currently in a federal prison system with a total capacity of around 128,000. This drastic overcrowding is not only inhumane and unnecessary, it also wastes millions of taxpayer dollars.

In 1994, lawmakers recognized this shortcoming and created a safety valve to restore some autonomy and flexibility in sentencing to judges. But the 1994 effort has proven ineffective. It permits judges to sentence drug offenders below the minimum only if the offender satisfies five strict criteria, including having little or no criminal history. Furthermore, these five requirements have been construed so narrowly as to drain the statute of much of its intended efficacy. Even with this limited safety valve at their disposal, judges routinely feel hamstrung by the draconian sentences they are forced to impose.

By empowering judges to depart from mandatory minimums when appropriate, this new legislation will relieve the prison system of the burden of over-incarceration, and the federal government the associated financial strain. But more importantly, it will limit the manifest injustice that occurs when a man or woman remains in jail longer than the rule of law demands. Mandatory minimums are emblematic of a bloated federal criminal justice system that has outgrown both our needs and our capacity to punish.

As TCP’s Sentencing Committee, chaired by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, has cautioned, “[t]he circumstances of criminal defendants and their offenses are so various that no set of rules can specify in advance the proper sentence for every offender.” It is imperative that lawmakers heed this warning and recognize and respect the vital importance of judicial discretion in this area. Senators Paul and Leahy’s bill begins this long overdue task.

The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of TCP, its committees, or boards. 

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