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June 24, 2013

NY Times editorial page gets on-board with Justice Safety Valve Act

Today's New York Times this new editorial headlined "Needed: A New Safety Valve." The piece draws on the encouraging bipartisan work in the House of Representatives concerning problems with the modern federal criminal justice systems and echoes some points stressed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed I co-wrote last month (noted here). Here are excerpts from the editorial:

Congress’s new bipartisan task force on overcriminalization in the justice system held its first hearing earlier this month. It was a timely meeting: national crime rates are at historic lows, yet the federal prison system is operating at close to 40 percent over capacity.

Representative Karen Bass, a California Democrat, asked a panel of experts about the problem of mandatory minimum sentences, which contribute to prison overcrowding and rising costs. In the 16-year period through fiscal 2011, the annual number of federal inmates increased from 37,091 to 76,216, with mandatory minimum sentences a driving factor. Almost half of them are in for drugs.

The problem starts with federal drug laws that focus heavily on the type and quantity of drugs involved in a crime rather than the role the defendant played. Federal prosecutors then seek mandatory sentences against defendants who are not leaders and managers of drug enterprises. The result is that 93 percent of those convicted of drug trafficking are low-level offenders.

Both the Senate and the House are considering a bipartisan bill to allow federal judges more flexibility in sentencing in the 195 federal crimes that carry mandatory minimums. The bill, called the Justice Safety Valve Act, deserves committee hearings and passage soon....

The proposed bill would apply to all federal crimes with mandatory minimums, not just drug crimes, so it would include theft of food stamps and miscellaneous other lesser crimes. It would also let judges consider less-lengthy sentences for drug offenders who don’t qualify for a reduction under the current law.

The case of Weldon Angelos has long stood for the injustice of mandatory minimums. Mr. Angelos received a 55-year prison sentence in 2004 for selling a few pounds of marijuana while having handguns in his possession, which he did not use or display. In an extraordinary opinion, the federal trial judge said he had no choice but to impose that “cruel, unjust, and irrational” sentence. The Justice Safety Valve Act would give courts more leeway to avoid that one-size-fits-all approach.

Some recent and older related posts:

June 24, 2013 at 11:22 AM | Permalink


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Let's assume Weldon Angelos is a victim of an unduly harsh sentence. What about all the completely innocent victims of criminals released far too early? My point, of course, is that a criminal justice system can't ever be so fine-tuned so that we know exactly what punishment to mete out to a given criminal. Moreover, experience has shown that judges cannot be trusted with too much discretion.

We have a choice--we can be overly lenient (with attendant victimization of innocent people) or we can be overly harsh.

I know where I come out. Let those who commit serious crimes bear the risk.

If I were president in say 2024, maybe I commute Angelos' sentence. Maybe I don't.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 26, 2013 12:24:07 AM

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