Writing in the Washington Times last Friday, Cara Sullivan, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Justice Performance Project, advocates for “safety valve” relief from harsh mandatory minimum sentences. In doing so, Ms. Sullivan gives needed attention to the tangible benefits sentencing and correctional reforms have wrought on the state level:
Policymakers are correct to be concerned about the status of America’s criminal justice system. At the federal level, there has been a 700 percent increase in the number of federal prisoners over the past 30 years, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at levels nearly 40 percent over capacity. However, as federal incarceration rates climb, state rates have been declining as many states examine evidence-based and data-driven reforms to their criminal justice systems.[…]
Policymakers need to consider alternatives to the inefficient and often unjust status quo of sentencing nonviolent offenders to lengthy and expensive prison stays that do little to protect public safety. Although they differ in approach, these safety valves provide judges with discretion to depart from automatic, pre-established prison sentences for specific offenses — if the court finds the imposition of the mandatory-minimum sentence to be unnecessary or to be a miscarriage of justice. When applied to certain crimes, safety-valve legislation protects public safety by responsibly focusing resources on dangerous offenders who pose a real and clear threat to the community.
Additionally, safety-valve policies are fiscally responsible reforms. Allocating resources for the most serious offenders ensures the criminal justice system is providing the most public safety return per taxpayer dollar. A Washington state analysis found that while incarcerating violent offenders leads to a net public benefit by saving the state more than it costs, imprisoning certain low-level, nonviolent offenders leads to negative returns.[…]
In the past 10 years, all 17 states that reduced their imprisonment rate also experienced a decline in crime rates. It is clear that higher spending and incarceration rates do not necessarily translate to increased public safety, and thoughtful prison reforms such as safety-valve legislation are a good way to save taxpayer dollars and give nonviolent offenders the chance to rebuild their lives.