Friday, October 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Safety Valves

FAMM President Julie Stewart calls for greater use of two "safety valves" for federal offenders in this excellent editorial over at The Huffington Post today.

The column features the story of Stephanie George, who is serving a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense.  Since there is no parole in the federal system, the only way out of prison before death for Stephanie would be through a presidential commutation -- a sentence reduction that can only be granted by the President of the United States.  Unfortunately, that first "safety valve" option is a bit like winning the lotto -- President Obama has only granted one commutation while in office, out of thousands of applications.  The commutation review process, housed in the Department of Justice, is also in dire need of serious reform.

A second "safety valve" 
was created by Congress in 1994. This provision allows courts to give a drug offender less time in prison than the mandatory minimum requires, but only if he and his offense meet certain requirements. For example, the defendant must have little to no criminal history. If he has ever committed another felony (or even a crime like careless driving), regardless of its relevance to his current offense, he cannot qualify for the current safety valve. The result is that even a completely nonviolent, low-level criminal history can make an offender like Stephanie ineligible for the existing safety valve.

Both of these safety valves can be improved so that individuals are punished, but not over-punished, and so that taxpayers are not forced to pay millions to imprison people who pose no threat to public safety.

First, the president should demand that the Justice Department provide him a list of individuals, like Stephanie George, who have already paid a high price for their crimes so that he can commute their sentences. The president should also reform the pardon process to ensure greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability.

Second, Congress should replace the existing safety valve with a broader provision that gives courts discretion in more cases. Stephanie George does not need to die in prison, and her judge knew it. But because of the mandatory minimum sentence and the narrow, existing safety valve, he could not fashion a more appropriate sentence. A broader safety valve would allow judges to eliminate unwarranted disparity in sentencing by making sure that "a girlfriend and bag holder" does not get the same sentence as the drug kingpins Congress targeted with mandatory minimums.