2014: Reduced Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Federal Drug Crimes

2014: Reduced Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Federal Drug Crimes

The War on Drugs reached a peak in the 1980s. Drug lords and cartels had begun mass infiltration into the United States with product and violence. At a time when violence and drugs flourished in the U.S., harsh penalties were placed on drug offenders.

Time has progressed and state laws have changed in regard to drug possession, distribution, and intent to distribute. Up until recently, extreme mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes were still in place. We have seen a number of high profile cases in which defendants have been slapped with overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders (some include decades worth of sentencing and other even life prison sentences). In these cases, defendants are unable to have their sentence threshold lessened, even if the judge believes mitigating factors deem the punishment too severe.

Fortunately for drug offenders, change to this archaic legislation is already in Congress. More power is to be given to federal judges to determine punishment suitable to match the offense. By unanimous vote in July 2014, the USSC approved retroactive drug sentencing reductions for federal drug offenses. In April 2014, the USSC passed a bill that states all federal drug offenders sentencing will abide by the USSC Guidelines Manuel. Retroactive reduced sentences can be petitioned by inmates and cannot take effect until November 1st, 2015.

Previously, minimum mandatory sentences were set at 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year prison terms. Additionally, time can be added for other mitigating factors including previous history of violent crimes or drug charges. This has since been revised to 2, 5, and 10-year sentences. External to this new legislation are drug offenders whose crimes led to other violence or death. Harsher punishments will remain mandatory for these offenders.

In a study conducted by Human Rights Watch, almost half of defendants who are charged with federal drug crimes are carrying out “low-level functions”. These roles include couriers and street level distributors. Three-fourths of those individuals received convictions resulting in mandatory minimum sentences. Contributing to this legislation is the gross overpopulation of the U.S. prison system. In 2012, the prison population stood at 2.3 million and nearly 7 million under federal supervision as inmate, parolees, or probationers provoking action from Attorney General Eric Holder starting in 2013.

Since the vote, the Dept. of Justice has been faced with an overwhelming number of petitions seeking re-sentencing. Priority is being placed on petitions based on 10+ years served, likelihood of lesser sentence if convicted today, lack of criminal history, good conduct, and absence of violence in prison.

If charged with a drug crime, it is important to seek legal advice to ensure you’ve explore current and local laws to improve your defense. A strong line of defense is formed with legal expertise and experience and will ensure avoidance of unfair conviction or excessive sentencing in Texas.

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Bette Dowdell

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