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United States Sentencing Commission reduces penalties for Non-Violent Drug Offenses

Dec 03, 2015

In the 1980s, the United States declared a war of drugs.  Part of that anti-drug campaign was to strengthen sentences for drug offenses.  The Congress passed laws that levied very harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.  To this day many Federal drug offenses carry a minimum sentence of ten (10) years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, even for first time drug offenders.  Over the years, these mandatory minimum sentences resulted in a large prison population with no chance of early release or parole.  In some cases, a person serving time for homicide who was sentenced after the non-violent drug offender, would serve his entire sentence and be released, while the non-violent drug offender still had years to serve on their sentence.

Over the last thirty years, the public view of certain drugs, marijuana in particular, has changed.  The public outcry for harsh sentences has quieted.  The public and our elected officials have realized that the harsh sentences of the 1980s and 1990s may have been too harsh.  In fact, earlier this year, the Bureau of Prison released nearly 6,000 federal prisons, who are non-violent drug offenders.  In November 2015, the United States Sentencing Commission revised the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and sentencing table.  These revision reduced the penalty range for drug offenders.  This is important because Judge's must take the Guidelines into account when fashioning a prison sentence.  Though the Guidelines have reduced the punishment range, they are advisory in nature, whereas statutes are mandatory. 

The next step is to revise the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements contained in the Federal drug laws.  Under the Federal drug statutes, a drug offender may be sentenced to serve at least  five (5) years, or in some cases, at least ten (10) years in federal prison, and these sentences may carry up to life behind bars. 

However, there are statutes that do not have a statutory minimum sentence for drug offenses.  In what can only be an effort to reduce prison populations and budget concerns over incarcerating people forever, former Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum advising the United States Attorneys for each jurisdiction to charge non-violent offenders under the statute that did not carry a statutory minimum sentence.  From a defense attorney's standpoint, this practice is great for the client.  It allows prosecutors to charge offenders, obtain a conviction, and incarcerate the offenders, without subjecting individual to extremely long sentences. 

Eventually, it will become apparent that long sentences for first time and non-violent offenders is not beneficial.  The purpose of prison is to rehabilitate.  Sending a person to prison for ten years for a first offense only exorcises that person of hope, which increases the chance of recidivism, and future prison terms.

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