Criminal Justice Reform

The Importance of a Narrowly-Tailored Safety Valve

In the United States, there are criminal statutes which require sentences known as mandatory minimums sentences that are the lightest penalty a judge may give for a particular crime. Since their proliferation in the 1980s, mandatory minimums have become a highly debated area of law. While there are areas of disagreement regarding specific changes, the consensus among voters is that there are improvements to be made. In particular, allowing for more judicial discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.

In 2016, The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies polled 1,200 likely voters nationwide to survey their opinion on certain aspects of the U.S. Prison System. The results showed individuals favored greater judicial discretion for sentencing nonviolent drug offenders. Judges should have the ability to evade certain mandatory minimum sentences which sometimes ensnare nonviolent offenders.

The ALEC model Justice Safety Valve Act accomplishes this by laying out guidelines for when it is proper, and improper, to deviate from mandatory minimums. In order to be considered eligible for the safety valve, there are two prongs which must be satisfied. First, the defendant cannot have threatened or seriously injured another person, or have engaged in sexual conduct with a minor. Secondly, the judge must find, while taking into account the defendant’s history and chance of recidivism, a substantial and compelling reason that the mandatory minimum sentence would result in substantial injustice to the defendant while being unnecessary for public safety. Even then, there are further stipulations that should the defendant been found guilty of the same crime within the past 10 years, or if the defendant caused injury with a gun, or led others in a continuing criminal enterprise, they are not eligible for the safety valve. This narrowly tailored safety valve would allow for the necessary flexibility to hold violent individuals accountable, while not needlessly punishing low-level criminals. The safety valve also sets aside 25% of the savings which will be reinvested in evidence-based programs which reduce recidivism. All diversions of sentences would be reported to the sentencing commission which would then proceed to release the reports one year after the passage of the respective states’ bill.

It is important that violent criminals are separated from society, but separating low-level criminals from society, and potentially their families for long periods of time can be one of the reasons for the rise in crime in certain areas. The Heritage Foundation has pointed out that evidence shows many young men and women from broken families have a weaker sense of connection with their neighborhood and are therefore prone to exploit its members to satisfy their unmet needs or desires. This contributes to a loss of a sense of community and to the disintegration of neighborhoods. It is time to restore the ability for judges to account for all the factors when they are sentencing certain non-violent offenders and to leave long prison sentences to those who pose a danger to society.


In Depth: Criminal Justice Reform

The American Legislative Exchange Council is proud to be a leader on criminal justice reforms in the states. Since 2008, the ALEC task force on criminal justice reform, called the Justice Performance Project, has brought state legislators and stakeholders together to combat the trend of unforgiving and harsh criminal laws.

+ Criminal Justice Reform In Depth