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SULLIVAN: A safety valve for overcrowded prisons

The Senate Judiciary Committee met on Sept. 18 to examine the efficacy of mandatory-minimum sentences and to discuss "safety-valve" policies that would increase judicial discretion, maximize the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and increase safety among the nation's communities.

Policymakers are correct to be concerned about the status of America's criminal justice system. At the federal level, there has been a 700 percent increase in the number of federal prisoners over the past 30 years, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at levels nearly 40 percent over capacity. However, as federal incarceration rates climb, state rates have been declining as many states examine evidence-based and data-driven reforms to their criminal justice systems. States are leading the way in criminal justice reform, and the federal government should take notice.

Both levels of government can protect our communities through crafting policies that focus limited resources on dangerous criminals by allowing judges to depart from mandatory-minimum sentences in certain cases of nonviolent offenders. These policies not only strengthen public safety and help balance budgets, but they also help rebuild lives.

There is precedent for safety-valve reform and, similar to criminal justice reforms in general, states are leading the way. Maine, New York, Virginia and Minnesota have enacted some version of a safety valve, and more states are likely to consider it. In 1994, Congress created a safety valve for federal drug offenders who fulfill a strict, five-part test, but the federal government would be well-served to broaden the categories of offenders to whom the safety valve applies.

Policymakers need to consider alternatives to the inefficient and often unjust status quo of sentencing nonviolent offenders to lengthy and expensive prison stays that do little to protect public safety. Although they differ in approach, these safety valves provide judges with discretion to depart from automatic, pre-established prison sentences for specific offenses — if the court finds the imposition of the mandatory-minimum sentence to be unnecessary or to be a miscarriage of justice. When applied to certain crimes, safety-valve legislation protects public safety by responsibly focusing resources on dangerous offenders who pose a real and clear threat to the community.

Additionally, safety-valve policies are fiscally responsible reforms. Allocating resources for the most serious offenders ensures the criminal justice system is providing the most public safety return per taxpayer dollar. A Washington state analysis found that while incarcerating violent offenders leads to a net public benefit by saving the state more than it costs, imprisoning certain low-level, nonviolent offenders leads to negative returns.

Rather than simply throwing more dollars at corrections to increase prison capacity for nonviolent offenders serving long sentences, safety valves safely reduce prison overcrowding while still holding offenders accountable. This more humane approach to policymaking allows nonviolent offenders the opportunity for recovery, and the resulting cost savings can be invested in efforts that strengthen public safety, such as effective policing strategies and rehabilitative programs.

Support for mandatory-minimum reform spans the ideological spectrum. The two major pieces of sentencing reform currently before the Senate are co-sponsored by policymakers as diverse as Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee on the right and Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy and Richard J. Durbin on the left. Reform coalition partners include groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Justice Fellowship, Families against Mandatory Minimums and Heritage Action. The American Legislative Exchange Council model policy on this issue, the Justice Safety-Valve Act, is a good resource for policymakers to use as a framework for reforms.

Some argue that departing from mandatory minimums jeopardizes public safety. However, safety valves do not repeal mandatory minimums, nor do they prevent a judge from imposing the maximum sentence. They simply provide the option to deliver a lower sentence in certain circumstances. This helps protect public safety as it preserves the highest level of supervision for those most likely to reoffend.

In the past 10 years, all 17 states that reduced their imprisonment rate also experienced a decline in crime rates. It is clear that higher spending and incarceration rates do not necessarily translate to increased public safety, and thoughtful prison reforms such as safety-valve legislation are a good way to save taxpayer dollars and give nonviolent offenders the chance to rebuild their lives.

Cara Sullivan is director of the American Legislative Exchange Council's Justice Performance Project.

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