What is the Federal Sentencing “safety valve”?

Safety Valve Sentencing in Federal Court

If you are convicted of a crime in federal court, many times there is a mandatory minimum sentence involved.  The court must give you at least this mandatory minimum sentence, absent some exception.  The federal “safety valve,” as it is called, is one of only a few ways out of a mandatory sentence.  It is a law that lets the court give you less time in jail, if you meet the law’s requirements.  Since 1995 over 60,000 federal drug offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences have gotten relief under the federal safety valve law.  This is a good thing, not only for you, but for taxpayers, because $25,000.00 is saved for every year someone does not stay in a federal prison.


What is the safety valve law? 

In response to widespread criticism that mandatory minimums are unduly harsh in many circumstances – crack v. powder cocaine, for instance – and they cannot meaningfully distinguish among defendants of different culpability, in 1994 Congress created the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f).  This law suspends the operation of the otherwise applicable mandatory minimum in drug cases if the defendant was a low-level participant, did not use a weapon, was involved in a violence-free crime, had little or no criminal history and told the government the truth about his or her involvement in the offense and offenses in the same course of conduct or common scheme or plan.


What are the requirements for relief under the safety valve provisions?

You are eligible for relief under the law only if all of the below criteria are met:

  1. No one was harmed during the offense;
  2. little or no criminal history;
  3. did not use violence or a gun;
  4. not a leader or organizer of the offense; and
  5. full cooperation with the prosecutor.

If you meet these requirements it is up to you and your lawyer to negotiate the best deal with the prosecutor and the court, and you will not be hindered by the mandatory minimum.


Can my lawyer mess up my case by pushing for relief under the safety valve provisions?

Yes, in more ways than one.  Your lawyer must know as much as possible about your case before even thinking about relief under the safety valve.  Requirement number 5 – that you fully cooperate with the prosecutor – is full of pitfalls and traps, and it is important that your lawyer be experienced in federal criminal defense and prepared to advise you before you commit to a decision.

If you need help with your federal case in Mississippi, or you would like me to consult with your existing lawyer, contact me at clarence@guthriefirm.com or call 601-991-1099.  I am here to help, and your initial consultation won’t cost anything.