Reducing Sentences for Federal Drug Crimes: U.S. Sentencing Commission Votes on Making Reductions Retroactive

We handle lots of federal criminal cases. We also occasionally represent people accused of federal drug crimes, both here in Atlanta and around Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Over the past decade there has been a slow recognition that sentences for drug crimes are simply too long. This week, the United States Sentencing Commission votes on an important aspect of the decade-long effort to reduce sentences for federal drug offenses. You can read a paper here that describes the potential reduction and how it would impact people who are already serving sentences for federal drug crimes.

A little history lesson helps to understand this vote and how it can possibly help people already sentenced to federal prison for a drug crime. Back in the 1980’s, the media hyped up what it called the crack cocaine explosion. Politicians fell all over themselves in efforts to be “tough on crime.” This resulted in a very bad law enacted in 1986 which created mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug crimes. These mandatory penalties caused automatic enhancements to another set of rules for federal criminal sentences called the “Sentencing Guidelines.” As a result, an entire generation of offenders were subject to increased sentences, whether or not the Defendant was a young first-time offender or a seasoned long-term criminal. Taxpayers spent billions of dollars on useless and inhumane incarceration.

However, about 10 years ago the power structure finally began waking up, recognizing that we have the world’s highest incarceration rate, and we are throwing away billions of dollars each year to incarcerate many low-level drug offenders. Reductions in crack cocaine sentences got much of the attention in the past few years.

Earlier this year, the Sentencing Commission voted to change the Sentencing Guidelines to further reduce sentences for all drug crimes. In essence, the knocked two “levels” from all drug calculations. This change only goes into effect November 1, 2014, however.

Tomorrow the Sentencing Commission votes to make this change “retroactive”, meaning it would help people already serving federal drug sentences. As shown in the paper on the Commission’s website, they estimate it would reduce sentences for over 51,000 people, resulting in huge savings for the taxpayers.

We will keep a close eye on the Commission vote. Hopefully, we can use this for some of our current and future clients, to get them out of prison earlier and back to their families.

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