At the beginning of 2014, we discussed the proposed “Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013” (hereafter SSA) in a blog post. At that time, both the Senate and the House of Representatives had a version of the bill (S. 1410 and H.R. 3382, respectively), both were on the agenda of their respective chamber’s Committee on the Judiciary, these two versions were identical, and we noted that the text of any bill often changes when it is considered by committee.

In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee finished considering the bill and sent it to the Senate floor. (The House version is still in committee.) At some point, the whole Senate will put it to a vote, but in the meantime we will cover the substantial changes that the Senate Judiciary Committee made to the bill.

UPDATE: The Smarter Sentencing Act was reintroduced in Congress in 2015. Read our post about its newest version, or, for other developments, see a list of all our posts on bills in Congress.

Did the Senate Judiciary Committee change how the SSA says that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would be applied?


Did the Senate Judiciary Committee change the SSA’s definition of an expanded federal sentencing “safety valve”?

(The “safety valve” is a provision that allows defendants to be sentenced to less than the mandatory minimum under certain conditions.)

Yes. Current law gives as a qualification for application of the “safety valve” that the defendant’s criminal history category is only 1 (that means the defendant only has 0 or 1 criminal history points). In the House version, that qualification is amended to apply to defendants whose history category is 2 (meaning they have up to 3 criminal history points).

The Senate version amends the qualification about the defendant’s criminal history to specify that a defendant qualifies for the “safety valve” if the defendant has no more than 2 criminal history points and does not have prior convictions for any offenses involving physical force and has not been convicted under §922, §924, §1962, Title 21 U.S.C. §854, a sex offense, or a Federal crime of terrorism.

Current law would still be in place that specifies that, to qualify for the “safety valve,” the defendant did not (for the offense for which he is charged) use violence or a dangerous weapon, and no one died or was seriously injured; nor did the defendant lead or organize others to participate in that offense, and he has truthfully cooperated with the Government about the offense.

Did the Senate Judiciary Committee adjust the mandatory minimums specified by the SSA?

The Senate’s version of the SSA does not differ from the House version concerning mandatory minimums for drug crimes. If the SSA passes in the form current either in the Senate or in the House, the mandatory minimums attached to controlled substance violations would still be cut by 50% or more.

However, the Senate’s version, if passed, would increase mandatory minimums for some other sorts of crimes. In brief (skating over some of the finer points), the Senate version, if passed in its current form, would

  • set a 5-year mandatory minimum for sexual abuse that occurs under Federal jurisdiction,
  • set a 5-year mandatory minimum for sex trafficking or child pornography offenses,
  • set a 10-year mandatory minimum for crossing state lines to commit violent domestic abuse if the victim dies,
    (present law has no mandatory minimum for the above three sorts of offenses).
  • change the mandatory maximum for crossing state lines to commit violent domestic abuse if the victim suffers life-threatening bodily injury from 20 years to 25 years,
  • change the mandatory maximum for crossing state lines to commit violent domestic abuse if the victim suffers serious bodily injury from 10 years to 15 years,
  • add to the U.S. Code (in the section against smuggling, as well as other places) that it is a crime with a mandatory minimum of 5 years to provide arms to terrorists or to provide goods or services related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

What happens next? When will this bill become law?

In the House, the bill still needs to be considered by the subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, then considered by the full House Judiciary Committee, then voted on by the whole House. The Senate, in its turn, needs to vote on their version of the bill. If both the House and the Senate pass a version of the bill, the bill goes to a conference committee, in which a few people from each chamber meet to decide what version of the bill to send to the President. Then the final version will go to the President to veto or sign it. At each stage of this process, the bill may be amended, so we may post another blog entry or two in the future about further amendments.

If this whole process is not finished by the end of 2014, it will have to start all over from the beginning in 2015.

Sometimes bills look very different at the end of the process than they did at the beginning, so the end product may be better for defendants or it may be worse. Stay tuned!