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May 7, 2013

Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013

Thanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some of the ideas first expressed in this recent post concerning the proposed Justice Safetly Valve Act of 2013 now find expression in this Wall Street Journal opinion piece we co-authored.  Here is are snippets from the the piece:

There are few topics on which leading Democratic and Republican voices agree these days. But the recently introduced Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 — which would authorize federal judges to impose prison terms below statutory mandatory minimums in some cases — represents a new bipartisan effort at addressing America's overcrowded prisons and bloated budget.  Passage of the act, though, will depend on President Obama and his Justice Department getting behind it....

The Justice Safety Valve Act, recently introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.), and to the House by Reps. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D., Va.) and Thomas Massie (R., Ky.), could help reduce the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted keeping thousands of people sentenced under mandatory minimum laws locked up.  The bill would enable federal judges to consider when or whether a mandatory-minimum sentence serves legitimate law-enforcement purposes given the particular circumstances of the crime and defendant.  Judges could impose prison terms below the statutory minimums only when they explain, through an on-the-record, reviewable opinion, that a shorter term is sufficient to serve the express goals of the criminal justice system set out by Congress....

[B]ipartisan support and sponsorship of the Justice Safety Valve Act highlights that prominent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree — at this time of lean budgets, sequester cuts and overcrowded prison facilities — that the current federal sentencing scheme is neither fair nor effective, and that mandatory-minimum sentencing laws lie at the heart of the problem.

President Obama's vocal support of this bill would signal a real commitment to using his bully pulpit to advocate on behalf of significant reform proposals.  If he does not, the president's failure to champion sentencing reform may become his most lasting federal criminal-justice legacy.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 7, 2013 at 11:34 PM | Permalink


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Oh heck - about all I have to say is thanks. The safety valve will be a great start.

Posted by: beth | May 7, 2013 11:51:17 PM

Judges owe their jobs to the criminals, and to no one else. If you end crime, they lose their jobs. The conflict of interest was not disclosed, let alone addressed in this pro-criminal biased, lawyer propaganda piece. I find it a bit irresponsible in the wake of the mass urban slaughter now going on directly as a result of the Booker series. ("Urban" is code for black, about whom the white racist VFL cares little.)

Disclosure. I can't believe they accepted this piece of legal esoterica and rejected my piece proposing an easy and immediate $70 billion savings.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 8, 2013 4:44:35 AM

Doug --

Congratulations on getting in the WSJ. That's a tough nut to crack. I thought your article was well written and hit the high notes. Of course, in my view, there are some low notes in this tune as well, but that's a subject for another time.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 8, 2013 7:44:16 AM

Thanks, Bill. Maybe you can use your inside-the-beltway skills to set up some kind of event in the DC area this summer --- at Georgetown, sponsored by the Federalists, perhaps --- for a public debate concerning the pros and cons of MMs in the federal system and the merits/problems of the Justice Safety Valve Act. If you really have some juice, maybe you can get Senators Leahy and Paul to help make it happen.

Thanks for the Congrats.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 8, 2013 8:16:37 AM

Doug --

The Fed Soc only hosts events during the school year, so September would be the earliest they would do it. It's a good topic, though, and I'll recommend it to the chapter head, who is a former student of mine. As for Leahy and Rand Paul -- let's say that I'm not on either one's good list. I'm on the other list.

We could also do this at your place, but I'll only agree to come out there if the picture of you on the front of the auditorium has shrunken so that it's now less than thirty feet high.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 8, 2013 9:03:18 AM

It's sad that allowing judges to make judgment calls is considered a radical change.

Posted by: NickS | May 8, 2013 10:05:29 AM

We all must agree with what President Obama said at OSU on May 5th:

"We can always aspire to something more. That doesn't depend on who you elect to office. It depends on you, as citizens, and how big you want us to be."

"And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us, it’s about what can be done by us,
together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of [Douglas A. Berman]."

Posted by: Adamakis | May 8, 2013 2:35:50 PM

One point the op-ed failed to make is that there already is a safety valve in the guidelines and, if an offender does not qualify, maybe he isn't such a great guy after all (because of criminal history, violence assoicated with the offense, leadership of others, etc.).

Posted by: Tom Albus | May 9, 2013 10:31:22 AM

Tom, the existing statutory safety valve now only applies in some minor drug cases and only to first offenders, not in many other kinds of cases and for other defendants who can only get out from under an MM by making a deal behind closed doors with a prosecutor.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 13, 2013 1:37:54 PM

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