Today, the United States has the world’s largest prison population. The get-tough crime policies of the 1980s, and especially the increased use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, have filled state and federal prisons to well beyond their capacities. Ballooning corrections budgets have started chewing up funds for education, infrastructure and health care. States across the country have responded and saved their taxpayers money by adopting evidence-based programming like drug courts for addicted offenders and stricter probation programs like Hawaii’s HOPE program to reduce incarceration rates. States as varied as South Carolina, Rhode Island, Delaware, Georgia, and California have repealed or narrowed mandatory minimum laws or created exceptions, known as “safety valves,” to give judges some flexibility when the mandatory sentence leads to absurd or unjust results.
But the federal government lags far behind. The federal prison system is at 140 percent of its capacity; half of its 218,000 offenders are serving time for a drug offense. A recent Congressional Research Service report blamed the overcrowding largely on mandatory minimum sentences, which send people to prison for decades whether they deserve it or not. The federal Bureau of Prisons budget is $6.8 billion – a full quarter of all the money the Justice Department is allotted to fight crime and keep us safe. The answer isn’t more money (there isn’t any) or more prisons. The answer is better policies that save us money while protecting public safety.
Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have proposed just such a solution. Their Justice Safety Valve Act, like its identical Senate counterpart introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would give judges permission to sentence people below the mandatory minimum prison term if that sentence fails to serve the goals of punishment. For example, if we can be kept safe by giving a low-level, nonviolent drug offender eight years in prison instead of the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, the new bill would permit the judge to do so. Those cost-savings could be used for crime-fighting grants or recidivism-reducing programs. That prison bed could be reserved for truly dangerous and violent offenders like those who recently bombed Boston.
The bill also recognizes that mandatory minimum sentences sometimes produce absurd or simply unfair results, as in the case of a young woman named Mandy Martinson. Mandy became addicted to methamphetamine after she left an abusive relationship. She found a new boyfriend who was kind to her and sold the drugs she craved. He kept handguns (which Mandy never used) and drugs in her home. When police arrested him, Mandy was held accountable for the drugs and guns, which triggered a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for her. The judge thought Mandy deserved a 10-year punishment. She was, after all, a first-time offender who started receiving drug treatment and was on her way to sobriety before she was even sentenced. And Mandy’s boyfriend, who had a prior drug conviction, received only a 12-year sentence, because he had valuable information to trade to prosecutors in exchange for a shorter term. Mandy had no such information, and the judge had no choice. He was required to give Mandy 15 years in prison, despite his conviction that she was not a threat to public safety or likely to reoffend.
The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges like Mandy’s to save expensive prison beds for people who really deserve them. The bill would ease prison overcrowding, increasing the odds that offenders are rehabilitated behind bars and don’t reoffend when they return to our communities. Enacting the bill would move us one step closer to the National Association of Evangelical’s vision of a world where punishment keeps us safe, rehabilitates, and is a wise use of our tax revenue.
Carey is the vice president of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals.