Earlier this month, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 was introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate (and, in each, by both a Republican and a Democrat, so that they could refer to this as “bipartisan”). It is a very short bill that says that a Judge does not have to obey a statutory mandatory minimum when sentencing. For a Judge to bypass a mandatory minimum, only two things are required. First, the Judge must notify the prosecutor and defendant in advance of the Judge’s intention so that the parties can respond. Second, the Judge must make a written statement of reasons why the Judge is setting aside the statutory mandatory minimum.

If this bill becomes law, it would help cases in which the mandatory minimum laid down by the law is plainly excessive for the defendant’s crime.

However, whether a Court would find that the mandatory minimum is excessive in a given case depends on many unpredictable factors. Probably defendants will be disappointed more often than not that the Court will judge that mandatory minimum still applies in their case.

At this stage, we do not know whether this bill will actually become law or not. The same bill was introduced in the Senate and House last year by most of the same Senators and Congressmen and, in 20 months, never made it out of committee. (The current version has been sent to the Judiciary Committees of both chambers and has about the same length of time to pass.)

In order to become law, the bill must go through the Judiciary Committee of both chambers, voted on and pass the full Senate and House, and then go to the President, who might sign it or might not. Along the way, its text might be changed, and then our representatives will have to figure out how to reconcile the changes. One can track the bill by looking up S. 353 (the version of the Senate) and H.R. 706 (the version of the House of Representatives).

Stay tuned for more updates on sentencing reform bills.


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