United States may reform minimum sentencing laws: part one

Since 2008, the number of people detained in federal prisons has steadily risen. Federal prisons are now filled to 139 percent of their capacity, with the prison population growing daily. One of the reasons for this growth - a reason that has frustrated criminal defendants, civil liberties advocates and judges - is the existence of mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes.

Under current federal law, a person convicted of certain crimes will be given a sentence no less than a mandatory minimum and are not eligible for parole. That means judges can use their discretion to sentence them to more time, but not less, using their discretion.

For example, in a recent case a man sold marijuana two times to someone who turned out to be a federal informant. The informant noticed that he had a gun strapped to his ankle the first time and a gun in his car the second time. When police entered the man's house to arrest him, they also found guns there. He was charged with three counts of selling drugs while in possession of a firearm, which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years. The judge in the case wanted to sentence him to 18 years instead but his hands were tied by federal law.

In response to this growing problem, two U.S. Senators recently introduced the "Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013." As the name suggests, if the bill is passé dinto law it would allow federal judges to use their discretion, pulling a "safety valve" if certain conditions are met and they believe the mandatory minimum sentence is inappropriate for the crime.

Next week we'll discuss this proposed law in more detail and explore when judges could be allowed to use this safety valve to determine fairer sentences for federal criminal defendants.

Source: Reason.com, "Today Rand Paul and Pat Leahy Introduced a Bill to Fix Our Atrocious Federal Mandatory Minimum Laws," Mike Riggs, March 20, 2013

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