New House Bill Should Be Priority for Attorney General

04/24/2013 03:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) today introduced a bill to authorize federal judges to depart below a mandatory minimum prison term in cases where the minimum sentence is not necessary to protect public safety. The bipartisan bill, titled the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, is identical to legislation introduced last month by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The common sense reform will help prevent first-time and low-level, nonviolent offenders from receiving prison terms that Congress originally intended for drug kingpins and hardened criminals.

Sentencing reform organizations from across the political spectrum have already endorsed the new bills, as have taxpayer advocates, including Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. The U.S. Department of Justice has not weighed in on the reforms yet, but in a recent speech, Attorney General Eric Holder provided perhaps the most compelling case for the Justice Safety Valve Act. After noting the high economic cost of mass incarceration - $83 billion in 2009 alone - as well as the steep "human and moral costs," Holder said:

The Department of Justice is determined to continue working alongside Congressional leaders, judges, law enforcement officials, and independent explore ways to give judges more flexibility in determining certain sentences. Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.

It is one thing for sentencing reform advocates or prisoners' families to suggest that our sentencing laws are ensnaring individuals who pose no threat to society. It is quite another thing when the Attorney General, the nation's top law enforcement officer, admits that "too many" offenders are serving excessive sentences "for no good law enforcement reason.

Holder did not blame sentencing laws in general for our bloated and wasteful prison system. He fingered a specific type of sentencing law:

Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often bear no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. ... We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter - and not simply to warehouse and forget.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws flout a basic principle of justice, which holds that punishment should be based on and proportional to the offender's conduct. Like all one-size-fits-all guarantees, the reality is that congressionally mandated minimum prison sentences fit some cases, but not all. Too often, they impose a sentence that far exceeds what an offender needs to learn his lesson and to keep the public safe. The cost of these excessive sentences adds up, which is why the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service listed the growing use of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws as one of the main drivers of prison overcrowding and our unsustainable federal prison budget.

Fortunately, Representatives Scott and Massie have introduced a common sense reform that Attorney General Holder should strongly endorse. Their Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 does not repeal federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but simply authorizes judges to impose shorter sentences in cases where the minimum is not needed to maintain public safety. Major drug traffickers and violent predators will still receive the lengthy lock-ups they deserve. On the other hand, a low-level drug offender might receive a sentence of three years where the minimum might otherwise call for five years.

This modest change will save taxpayers from spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep nonviolent offenders behind bars. More importantly, it will improve public safety by allowing those savings to be used to investigate, prosecute, and detain truly dangerous individuals. Finally, it will restore a measure of justice to our criminal justice system; it will ensure that if someone we love or know runs afoul of the law, he will be punished with time that fits his crime - and his crime alone.

If Attorney General Holder is serious about finding ways "to give judges more flexibility" at sentencing so that our country stops locking up so many offenders "for far too long for no good law enforcement reason," he and President Obama should embrace the Justice Safety Valve Act.