Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: Holder Memo, Justice Safety Valve Act, and Smarter Sentencing Act

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently issued new policies to the existing mandatory minimum statutes regarding drug offenses. Holder has vowed to work with Congress to make changes to the existing mandatory minimum statutes regarding drug offenses. Here is a summary of the three new policies.

The Holder Memo

Holder recently released a memo that seeks to curtail prosecution of some cases that would trigger certain mandatory minimum sentences in drug sentences.

The Federal Public and Community Defenders compiled data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission to estimate the number of defendants who might benefit each year from the proposals in the Holder Memo. The data shows that more than 25,000 defendants were sentenced under drug trafficking guidelines in FY2012. Of those, 15,509 were convicted under drug statutes carrying a minimum term of imprisonment. 530 drug defendants a year will benefit from reduced sentences due to the changes directed in the Holder Memo regarding the charging of drug quantity.

The Justice Safety Valve Act

The proposed Justice Safety Valve Act would expand a current provision in sentencing law, authorizing judges to hand down less harsh sentences if they determine doing so would not jeopardize public safety. Under the current law, only certain nonviolent, low-level, first-time drug offenses are subject to sentencing below the federal mandatory minimum.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that in FY2012, that of the 84,173 defendants who were convicted, more than 20,000 of them were convicted under statutes carrying a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment. More than half of those defendants did not receive any relief from the mandatory penalty through the currently existing safety valve or through motions to reduce the mandatory penalty due to the defendant’s substantial assistance(§5K1.1 motions). The Federal Defenders estimate that 3,107 defendants would have received lower sentences in FY 2012 if the Justice Safety Valve Act had been in effect.

The Smarter Sentencing Act

The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply and when they should expand the current safety valve for drug trafficking offenders. The Act does not repeal mandatory minimum sentences or the maximum sentences for these offenses. These changes do not apply to penalties for violent offenses.

The Federal Defenders estimate that about 2,659 defendants each year could be affected by these changes, and more than 25,000 could be affected if the Drug Quantity Table is amended.