Mandatory minimum sentences are the product of good intentions, but good intentions do not always make good policy; good results are also necessary. Recognizing this fact, there are public officials on both sides of the aisle who support amending some components of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. But before such reform can proceed, Congress must ask itself: With respect to each crime, is justice best served by having legislatures assign fixed penalties to that crime? Or should legislatures leave judges more or less free to tailor sentences to the aggravating and mitigating facts of each criminal case within a defined range?
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington, has released a study of mandatory minimum sentences. Among other matters, the study reviews two pending bills in the Senate.
The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 expands the existing sentencing “safety valve” by allowing a judge to depart downward from any mandatory minimum “if the court finds that it is necessary to do so in order to avoid imposing” an unjust sentence. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 applies only to nonviolent drug crimes and would permit a district judge to issue sentences without regard to any mandatory minimum if the court finds that the defendant meets certain criminal history requirements and did not commit a disqualifying offense.
Although the Smarter Sentencing Act takes a smaller step than the Safety Valve Act toward the revision of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the study notes that such a measured approach could enhance federal sentencing policy while avoiding a number of potential pitfalls.
The report’s Abstract says
The Report is compelling reading, and represents further evidence that reform of Federal sentencing is a matter of importance to conservatives and liberals alike.