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"Justice Safety Valve Act" Bill to Ease Mandatory Minimums

16-Feb-2015

Among the bills presented for the consideration of Oklahoma lawmakers during the 2015 legislative session is a new act that would allow the court greater discretion in sentencing.

House Bill 1518, sponsored by Rep. Pam Peterson (R), would create the Justice Safety Valve Act. This act would allow judges, under certain circumstances, to hand down a lighter sentence than the mandatory minimum sentence for a specific offense.

The bill, if passed, would codify the Justice Safety Valve in 22 O.S. § 985.1. The Act would give permission to the court to deviate from mandatory minimum sentencing, and it would prescribe when the court would and would not be allowed to do so:

A. When sentencing a person convicted of a criminal offense for which there is a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment, the court may depart from the applicable sentence if the court finds substantial and compelling reasons on the record, after giving due regard to the nature of the crime, history and character of the defendant and his or her chances of successful rehabilitation, that: 

1. Imposition of the mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment would result in substantial injustice to the defendant; and 

2. The mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment is not necessary for the protection of the public.

The language in the bill is vague enough to allow judges significant leeway in determining what those "substantial and compelling reasons" might be--perhaps necessarily so given the mandatory minimum sentences Oklahoma requires for even non-violent drug offenses. Oklahoma's proportion of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses is greater than the national average--27 percent compared to the average of 20 percent. Oklahoma has the third highest incarceration rate in the nation, and approximately half of those inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. Perhaps a measure like the Justice Safety Valve Act would allow the state to reduce its incarceration burden and rehabilitate rather than warehouse nonviolent offenders.

However, the law would not allow a court to override mandatory minimums in all situations: 

B. The court shall not have the discretion to depart from the applicable mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment on convictions for criminal offenses under the following circumstances: 

1. The offense for which the defendant was convicted involved the use, attempted use or threatened use of serious physical force against another person or resulted in the serious physical injury of another person; 

2. The offense for which the defendant was convicted was a sex offense and will require the defendant to register as a sex offender pursuant to the provisions of the Sex Offenders Registration Act; 

3. The offense for which the defendant was convicted involved the intentional use of a firearm in a manner that caused physical injury during the commission of the offense; 

4. The defendant was previously convicted for the same offense within the previous ten (10) years; or 5. The defendant was the leader, manager, or supervisor of others in a continuing criminal enterprise.

It will be interesting to follow this bill and see if the Oklahoma legislature passes the bill and enacts the Justice Safety Valve Act, allowing courts to mete true justice in cases where mandatory minimums are excessive for the nature of the offense and the offender.



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