The wide-ranging anticrime law passed by Congress in 1994 generally is known as a “tough on crime” measure because it increased penalties for some federal crimes.
But an often overlooked section of the law known as the “safety valve” allowed sentences to be reduced for nearly 200,000 federal defendants, says a new analysis issued by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).
By the time Congress acted in 1994, “nearly every U.S. legal system was already embracing harsh and rigid sentencing laws,” and the statute popularly known as the “Crime Bill” continued that trend, writes Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman in the CCJ analysis.
For example, the law expanded the federal death penalty to cover about 60 offenses and created a federal “three strikes and you’re out” law that mandated a life-without-parole prison term for people convicted of a serious violent felony after two previous violent felonies or a prior serious violent felony and a prior serious drug offense.
Other sections of the measure increased penalties for offenses like drug dealing in “drug-free” zones and or illegal drug use and smuggling in federal prisons.
Provisions like this played a part in increasing the population in federal prisons, which stood at 100,000 in 1995 and exceeded 210,000 by 2010.
Yet some of the widely publicized get-tough provisions have had limited impact, although they have featured in current debates among Democrats vying for the presidency this year. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, has been a target of criticism from justice advocates and rival candidates—as well as President Donald Trump—for the role he played as a leading author of the bill while serving in the Senate.
The Justice Department pursued only about 30 capital cases annually between 1995 and 2000. There has not been a federal execution since 2003, although Attorney General William Barr is attempting to resume the practice.
Only 10 defendants were sentenced to life in prison under the crime law’s “three strikes” provision in 2010.
Meanwhile, the law’s “safety valve” section allowed judges to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for less-serious drug offenses that did not involve violence or guns and when defendants had pleaded guilty and had little criminal history.
Berman notes that in many years, more than 20 percent of federal drug defendants have benefited from the safety valve. In fiscal year 2000, nearly 5,000 of 21,000 federal drug defendants received lower sentences under the law, and in fiscal year 2010, some 5,500 of 23,000 federal drug defendants benefited.
The 2018 First Step Act expanded the safety valve by making more drug defendants eligible for shorter terms.
The 1994 law also helped set the stage for a 2010 reform that reduced a disparity dating from the 1980s that required 100 times less crack cocaine than powder cocaine to trigger lengthy prison terms). The 100-to-1 ratio was cut to 18-to-1.
The “greatest tangible impact” of the 1994 law’s sentencing provisions was the safety-valve positions that have helped so many defendants, Berman says.
Still, he says that the law “fostered and reinforced tough-on-crime attitudes in Washington and among state and local criminal justice officials that contributed to historic growth in national prison populations.”
CCJ member Donald Stern, a former U.S. Attorney in Boston, said that Berman’s analysis “has some lessons for today.”
Stern suggested that, “We can again follow the lead of the states … where they have rolled back long sentences and mandatory minimums, based on what works … The movement from tough on crime to smart on crime should continue, based on hard evidence and sound policy.”
The Criminal Justice Council is issuing a series of reports on the impact of the 1994 law, which has been called the most extensive piece of criminal justice legislation in U.S. history.
In September, The Crime Report published a story on a CCJ report that found the impact of the 1994 law on mass incarceration in the U.S. was “limited.”
CCJ describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank and membership organization that seeks to “advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions based on facts, evidence and fundamental principles of justice.”
This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.