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United States Sentencing Commission Shifts Gears In Punishing Drug Offenders

man-behind-barsAs the population of federal prisons continues to rise, due in significant part to the continued incarceration of non-violent drug offenders at high rates, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) has taken a big step in reducing the harsh “war on drugs” approach of incarcerating drug users and traffickers for extended periods of time.  According to the USSC, the vote to reduce the sentences will likely result in approximately one year off the average sentence and approximately 6,500 fewer prisoners in the next five years.  As it stands, approximately 50% of the more than 216,000 federal prisoners are there on drug charges.      

Over the past decade, states throughout the nation have begun to switch gears, turning away from the harsh punishment of lengthy incarceration for drug offenses.  Instead, state systems have successfully implemented the more effective long-term approach of diversion and treatment programs.  Critics of the federal system have argued that the federal government has lagged behind in reforming its tactics when doling out punishments for drug offenses.  It appears however that the USSC’s vote last month is step in the right direction.

The USSC’s vote, with support of the President’s administration, will institute a reduction in sentences by amending the federal sentencing guidelines to lower the base offense level in the Drug Quantity Table for a number of different drug and controlled substance types.  In short, the quantity of a controlled substance, combined with other factors corresponds with a “level” in the sentencing guidelines.  This “level” then has a corresponding recommended sentencing range.  For instance, prior to the vote a certain amount of heroin could result in a “level 18” and a suggested period of incarceration of 27-33 months.  Now, after the vote by the USSC, that same quantity of heroin would result in a “level 16” and a suggested term of imprisonment of 21-27 months.  According to the USSC, changes similar to the one in this example would likely be seen in more than 70% of federal drug arrests.  

Now that the USSC has acted, it remains up to Congress as to whether these changes will become law.  If Congress votes in favor of the amendments, the new guidelines would take effect in November of 2014.  As it stands now, only those sentenced after November 1, 2014 will feel the impact of the new guidelines.  However, there is a push to make this amendment retroactive.  Time will tell if retroactivity is a real possibility or will only hinder the momentum that this amendment has. 

Whether retroactive or not, this is a major step in the right direction for the federal government when it comes to drug use and trafficking offenses.  States have for some time changed their tune when it comes to prosecuting drug cases and it is truly a positive sign that the federal government appears to be beginning to do so as well. 

The lawyers at CMG will continue to monitor the path of this amendment and will continue to know and use the law for the benefit of our clients.  If you or a loved one have been accused of a drug crime, in state or federal court, be sure to hire a lawyer familiar with the nuances of the laws and the potential changes coming down the legislative pike. 

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