On Wednesday last week two lawmakers introduced a bill – the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 – that would give judges in federal drug offense cases the discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing. As Mike Riggs writes for Reason.com (and as any criminal defense lawyer knows), mandatory minimum sentencing has meant lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of drug crimes in the federal system – even when the judges themselves would’ve given a lesser sentence.
Impetus for the bill came from all those folks behind bars in federal facilities who are serving out years in prison despite relatively low-level crimes.
Take Weldon Angelos, for instance, who Riggs describes as a man who got 55 years for selling pot on three separate occasions with a gun strapped to his body or in his car (along with guns at his house). Though he wasn’t accused of actually firing any gun – presumably Angelos had guns for his personal safety and defense – simply having a gun while he sold pot (which netted him a few hundred dollars) made it “possession of a gun during a drug trafficking offense,” with a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Talk about adding to the over-population problem in our prisons.
The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, should it pass and become law (fat chance, perhaps?) would give judges in federal cases much-needed discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. That is, if there is a conviction in the first place. But, if there is a conviction, true justice seems to require that judges’ decisions aren’t dictated by the requirements of mandatory minimum sentencing.