A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would give federal judges more discretion in the sentences they hand out. Versions of the Justice Safety Valve Act (JSVA) have been introduced before, but the bill was immediately resurrected by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) after Attorney General Jeff Sessions returned the Justice Department to archaic, “tough-on-crime” policies of the past.
Under the Obama administration, former Attorney General Eric Holder gave prosecutors discretion to pursue lower charges against certain offenders in order to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences, which require binding prison terms of a specific length. Holder’s directive was credited as one reason for a 14 percent drop in the federal prison population over the last three years. Now, per Sessions’ new guidance, federal prosecutors are required to seek the maximum possible penalty in all cases, unless they are given explicit permission from senior DOJ officials, threatening this progress.
The JSVA would not eliminate mandatory minimums entirely, but would allow judges to hand down lower sentences if the court finds that the sentence imposed by the mandatory minimum does not reflect the seriousness of the offense or would be unjust. It has already gained support from groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Focusing on judicial discretion rather than sentencing guidelines themselves differentiates the JSVA from another bill criminal justice reform advocates have called on for reintroduction this year. In 2015, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), which proposed lowering mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, along with other important changes such as expanding access to anti-recidivism programs in federal prisons and compassionate release programs for ill and elderly prisoners who no longer pose a significant risk to public safety. Unlike the Safety Act, many of the changes in Grassley’s bill would be retroactive, allowing people already serving mandatory minimum sentences to leave prison sooner.
Together these proposals represent an important rethinking of federal sentencing. They parallel actions taken at the state level, where momentum is on the side of the reformers. A diverse group of states — from Louisiana to Oklahoma to California — have realized that past approaches don’t work and are focusing on improving everything from sentencing to bail. The draconian tone out of Washington, D.C., starkly contrasts these local efforts.
It is laudable and important that Senators Paul, Grassley, and other Republicans continue to support reducing over-incarceration, even while Sessions aims to take the country backwards. While ending mass incarceration will take more far-reaching changes such as eliminating prison for lower level crimes and reducing sentences across the board, these bills mark an important first step.