Reducing a Federal Criminal Sentence: Recent Changes and Possibly More to Come

Ever since I was a young federal criminal defense attorney, our country has been locking up people at an unprecedented pace.  The United States holds the title as the country that has locked up the highest number of people.  On a per capita basis, we are number 2, only behind the tiny Seychelles Islands.  Ever since I was a young man I have observed firsthand how these short-sighted “lock ’em all up” policies decimated entire communities, ruined families, and basically did no good (other than making a lot of jobs for jailers, people who design and operate jails, drug agents, prosecutors, probation officers, judges, and yes, criminal defense lawyers). However, over the past 5-8 years, some changes have come about.  Furthermore, it is now possible to reduce many federal criminal sentences that were imposed years ago.  More changes could be on the horizon.

As many readers know, one big change that resulted in reductions of some federal sentences is the “crack reduction”.  Back when our Nation locked up tens of thousands of citizens, our lawmakers decided that some dumb kid dealing in crack cocaine should be punished 100 times more severely than the disco-dancing fool who peddled the powder version of the very same drug.  After an entire generation was impacted by such unfair sentencing, Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed the rules, resulting in some prisoners getting reductions to their sentences.

More recently, Congress and the Sentencing Commission approved a reduction in the “drug table”.  Those who know about federal criminal sentencing realize that the “Sentencing Guidelines” is a point-based system designed to spit out a recommended sentence.  In drug cases, the biggest factor is the quantity of drugs for which the Defendant will be held accountable.  This quantity is then tied to an “offense level”.  The more drugs in a case, the higher the offense level.  Realizing that we have locked up way too many people for far too long, Congress and the Sentencing Commission last year reduced everything in the Drug Table by 2 levels, which can mean a fairly sizable reduction even for a Defendant serving a lengthy sentence.  Just this morning I got an agreement from the federal Probation Office that the judge should reduce one of my client’s sentences by almost three years.  This means my client will be getting out of prison very soon, to the relief of his family (not to mention the overburdened taxpayers).

Although there have been positive developments over the past few years, more is needed.  One of the bigger remaining problems is the concept of “mandatory minimum sentences.”  These crimes require a certain minimum sentence, even if the experienced Judge thinks the sentence is excessive.  By enacting these truly bad laws, Congress gave some wet-behind-the-years young federal prosecutor out to make a name for him or herself the right to name the sentence, as opposed to letting the sentence be decided by an experienced Judge who was nominated by the President and approved of by Congress.  Just the other day, two Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court testified before a congressional hearing, and gave them an earful about the stupidity of mandatory minimums sentences. “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.  In lots of cases, Kennedy said it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation and other supervised release programs.   Justice Stephen Breyer, who also testified at the hearing, added that setting mandatory minimum sentences for specific crimes was “a terrible idea.” He called on Congress to “prioritize” improvements to the criminal-justice system.  You can read about their testimony here.   Other potential good news is that the Sentencing Commission is poised to reduce the “loss table”, which is one of the biggest factor in setting fraud sentences.

I feel really bad for all the clients and families whose lives were ruined by our Nation’s foolish foray into mass incarceration.  Doing crime should require some people to “do time,” but our country went overboard.  We will try to help our clients, both old and new, to get the lowest and most fair sentence for the crime they committed.

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