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
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.