Plan Marks First Step on Cutting Drug Sentences

Post Date: January 10, 2014

(WSJ) — The federal panel that makes sentencing recommendations for federal judges unveiled a plan Thursday that could mean shorter sentences for thousands of future drug defendants, if the proposal can make it through the gantlet of law enforcement and Congress.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission unveiled a recommendation that would lower by two levels the base offense levels in drug trafficking cases. The proposed change would mean drug-trafficking offenders would be looking at a sentence about 11-months shorter than defendants being sentenced now in cases with the same level of drugs, the panel said.

Thursday’s step is the first in a long journey that will include two-months of public comments, a public hearing a commission vote in April. The non-partisan panel formally sends its recommendations to Congress in May. They become law later in the year, unless Congress takes action against them. That has happened in the past, the first time in 1995 when Congress rejected the Commission’s proposed attempt to change the crack and powder cocaine sentencing guidelines.

The Commission’s Chairwoman, federal Judge Patti B. Saris, called the step a “modest” proposal she hoped would reflect the Commission’s “priority of reducing costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons without endangering public safety.”

The Commission took a similar step in the past on crack cocaine in 2007 when it reduced guideline offenses for crack cocaine offenders by two levels.

Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the action Thursday was a “good step but it’s really just the beginning. We certainly support this effort on the commission’s part” but deeper change will have to come from Congress.

People convicted of drug crimes make up major portion of the population of the federal prison system, which has continued to grow while states have been reducing their inmate populations. More than half of the federal system’s 216,000 prisoners are serving sentences for drug offenses, according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Prisons. About one-third of all defendants sentenced last year in federal courts were sentenced for drug crimes. Read more