07.29.13

SJC Chairman Leahy Announces September Hearing On Mandatory Minimums

. . . Hearing to Review Paul-Leahy Legislation Expanding ‘Safety Valve’ To All Federal Crimes

WASHINGTON  – The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing in September on the issue of mandatory minimum sentences, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced Monday.

The announcement comes days after the Department of Justice announced that the state prison population saw a slight decline last year, while the number of federal prisoners actually increased over the same period.  Leahy and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation in March, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, that would expand the so-called “safety valve” that allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in qualifying drug cases to all federal crimes. The bipartisan legislation would allow judges to avoid needlessly long sentences for certain offenders and help curb the spiraling costs associated with these lengthy sentences.

A major factor driving the increase in the incarceration rate has been the proliferation of Federal mandatory minimum sentences in the last 20 years.  This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing never made us safer, but it has cost us plenty,” Leahy said.  “We must change course.  In September, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine the effects of Federal mandatory minimum sentences and measures to reform the system in order to combat injustice in sentencing and the waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Senator Leahy’s full statement on the legislation and upcoming hearing is below.  Details of the hearing, including a witness list, will be announced soon.

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 Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Federal mandatory minimum sentences and the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013<br/p> July 29, 2013

Last week the Department of Justice announced that the total United States prison population declined 1.7 percent from 2011 to 2012.  I was encouraged to see that sentencing reform at the state level continues to pay dividends by simultaneously reducing prison costs and crime rates.

I am troubled, however, that the entirety of the reduction in the U.S. prison population was attributable to the states.  The number of federal prisoners actually increased by almost 1,500 from 2011 to 2012.  While this increase was smaller than in previous years, the Federal government can no longer afford to continue on the course of ever-increasing prison costs.  As of last week, the federal prison population was over 219,000, with almost half of those men and women imprisoned on drug charges.  This year, the Bureau of Prisons budget request was just below $7 billion.

A major factor driving the increase in the incarceration rate has been the proliferation of Federal mandatory minimum sentences in the last 20 years.  This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing never made us safer, but it has cost us plenty.  We must change course.  In September, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine the effects of Federal mandatory minimum sentences and measures to reform the system in order to combat injustice in sentencing and the waste of taxpayer dollars.

In March, I joined with Senator Paul to introduce just such a measure.  The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 will give judges greater flexibility in sentencing in cases where a mandatory minimum is unnecessary and counterproductive.  Since its introduction, the Justice Safety Valve Act has received endorsements from a diverse group that spans the political spectrum, including George Will, Grover Norquist, David Keene, the New York Times, and over 50 former federal prosecutors and judges.  I ask unanimous consent that these endorsement letters and editorial be entered into the record.

In addition to driving up our prison population, mandatory minimum penalties can lead to terribly unjust results in individual cases.  This is why a large majority of judges oppose mandatory minimum sentences.  In a 2010 survey by the United States Sentencing Commission of more than 600 Federal district court judges, nearly 70 percent agreed that the existing safety valve provision should be extended to all Federal offenses.  That is what our bill does.  Judges, who hand down sentences and can see close up when they are appropriate and just, overwhelmingly oppose mandatory minimum sentences.

States, including very conservative states like Texas, that have implemented sentencing reform have saved money and seen their crime rates drop.  It is long past time that Congress follow their lead and a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal mandatory minimum sentences is an important place to start.

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