Do North Carolina’s drug sentencing laws need a “safety valve”

This article looks at whether a “safety valve” exception could create fairer drug sentencing laws.

North Carolina, like many other states, imposes strict mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenses. These sentencing guidelines force judges to hand down often lengthy prison sentences based on the weight of illegal drugs a person is carrying with them at the time of arrest. Because mandatory minimums give judges little discretion to craft a sentence that better reflects the gravity of the crime, they have proven highly controversial. Now, sentencing reform advocates say that one way to make North Carolina's drug laws more fair is by adopting so-called "safety valve" exceptions.

What's wrong with mandatory minimums?

Most people agree that if a person breaks the law, they should be punished for doing so. However, mandatory minimum sentences have a number of problems. For one, the mandatory minimum sentence imposed often doesn't reflect the gravity of the crime nor the circumstances of the case. For example, as the News & Observer points out, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines tend to make no differentiation between whether an offender is a drug kingpin or simply a small-time dealer with a drug addiction.

Furthermore, mandatory minimum sentences have led to massive incarceration rates. As PBS Newshour reports, nearly 700 out of 100,000 adults in the U.S. are in prison, which is far higher than the world average of 141 per 100,000 adults. That mass incarceration rate means that all levels of government spend hundreds of billions of dollars on prisons rather than on programs, such as education and drug treatment, that would actually help make communities safer.

Giving the law a "safety valve"

Some states have opted to do away with mandatory minimum sentences entirely. However, other states have taken more of a middle path, opting instead for what is called a "safety valve" exception. With a safety valve, the minimum sentencing guidelines stay in place, but courts are given the power to hand out lower sentences than the mandatory minimums if circumstances warrant such a deviation.

For example, judges could consider the suspect's drug addiction issues, desire to receive treatment, role in planning the offense, and criminal record. The General Assembly's Task Force on Sentencing Reform for Opioid Convictions recently expressed support for adopting some form of safety valve in the state's sentencing guidelines.

Criminal law help

For those who are being charged with a crime, it is extremely important that they reach out to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. As the above article shows, North Carolina's laws are notoriously tough, especially for drug crimes, and the consequences of a conviction could be dire. A criminal defense attorney can help clients defend their rights and protect their freedoms.