The Senate Judiciary Committee this fall will begin its review of legislation that would allow federal judges to impose prison sentences shorter than the mandatory minimums.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the committee and a co-author of the Justice Safety Valve Act, announced Monday he intends to hold a hearing in September to explore the consequences of federal mandatory-minimum sentences, and to look at reforms "to combat injustice in sentencing and the waste of taxpayer dollars."
The federal government "can no longer afford to continue on the course of ever-increasing prison costs," Leahy said in a prepared statement. "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."
The Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced in March by Leahy and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), allows judges to sentence offenders below the statutory requirements "if the court finds it necessary to do so." The option is currently available in some drug cases; this law would extend the discretion to all federal crimes.
Sentencing flexibility is an option long requested by defense attorneys and judges who feel restricted by sentencing laws.
"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," Leahy said.
"A major factor driving the increase in the incarceration rate has been the proliferation of Federal mandatory minimum sentences in the last 20 years," Leahy said. "This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing never made us safer, but it has cost us plenty. We must change course."
Leahy again on Monday cited a 2010 survey by the U.S. Sentencing Commission of more than 600 federal district court judges, in which nearly 70 percent wanted the safety valve provision for all crimes. "Judges, who hand down sentences and can see close up when they are appropriate and just, overwhelmingly oppose mandatory minimum sentences," he said.