A group of more than 50 former federal judges and prosecutors is urging Congress to adopt bipartisan legislation designed to relieve the nation’s overcrowded prisons by granting courts greater flexibility to consider sentences below the federal mandatory minimum. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, federal prisons are operating at 38 percent over capacity, endangering prison guards and inmates alike.
“Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are chiefly responsible for this wasteful use of prison space because they fail to distinguish between violent, serious criminals and low-level, nonviolent offenders,” wrote the former federal law enforcement officials in a letter organized by The Constitution Project and delivered to Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D–VT), the cosponsors of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, on July 17. A similar letter was also sent to Congressmen Robert C. Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY), sponsors of companion legislation in the House.
Among those signing the letter are Judge William S. Sessions, former director of the FBI; Michael Bromwich, former Inspector General of the Department of Justice; and Frank O. Bowman III, former special counsel for the United States Sentencing Commission. Bowman was also a reporter for TCP’s Sentencing Committee, which urges greater sentencing discretion for federal judges.
The bill (S. 619/H.R. 1695) would authorize federal judges to impose a prison sentence below the statutory mandatory minimum in cases in which a lower sentence will not jeopardize public safety, the judge determines the defendant is unlikely to become a repeat offender, and in other circumstances in which the minimum sentence is unwarranted, such as an offender’s limited role in a crime or other mitigating factors.