Small Fish Getting Caught in “Career Offender” Dragnet, New Report Finds

Post Date: July 29, 2016

Contact: Leila McDowell
lmcdowell@famm.org
202.822.6700

FAMM Says New Sentencing Commission Report Bolsters Case for Reform

WASHINGTON, DC – FAMM today welcomed the release of a new U.S. Sentencing Commission report, which recommends that Congress act to ensure that non-violent drug offenders are no longer  sentenced as career offenders under the federal sentencing guidelines. Drug offenders with prior non-violent drug offenses are less likely, according to the report, to have a serious criminal history, and they reoffend at a much lower rate than offenders with prior violent offenses. But the current career offender law fails to distinguish in a meaningful way between offenders with these vastly different records. As a consequence, low level, non-violent drug offenders face some of the longest sentences our system metes out.

FAMM earlier this year recommended commonsense changes to the career offender guideline and shared with the Commission examples of minor drug offenders who received decades-long prison sentences. FAMM continues to urge the Commission to do all it can to ease the impact of the career offender guideline on low level offenders even while it awaits congressional action on its recommendations. “A fundamental value of our justice system is that punishments should fit the crime,” said FAMM General Counsel Mary Price. “Too often this fails to happen in cases of so-called career offenders. This designation was established to target the most stubborn recidivists, but it frequently sweeps up bit players and drug addicts.”  

Price pointed to the case of Paul Fields, the father of a young child, who pled guilty to growing marijuana plants. He had two prior minor marijuana offenses. He was sentenced to probation for one and 100 days in jail for the other. Although those early crimes were minor, he was designated a career offender after his last conviction and sentenced to nearly 15 years in federal prison. Had he not been considered a career offender, he would have served no more than 2 years. 

“Under the current guideline, offenders can receive sentences of 15, 22, or even 30 years in federal prison, even if they had never spent a day behind bars previously. We could increase public safety and promote justice better by reserving the most serious sentences for the most serious offenders,” Ms. Price said.

In the report it released today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found among other things that:

  • Nearly three quarters of all career offenders in 2014 were convicted of drug offenses;
  • Career offenders are sentenced to long terms of incarceration — 147 months on average;
  • Because they spend so long in prison, career offenders now make up fully 11 percent of the federal prison population;
  • While they receive very long sentences, these sentences are often below those called for by the career offender guideline, often at the request of the government — only 27.5 percent of career offenders today receive the recommended career offender sentence; 
  • Career offenders who committed an instant or prior crime of violence have more serious and extensive criminal histories and commit crimes at a higher rate than career offenders with only drug trafficking offenses; and
  • Federal law and the sentencing guidelines currently contain a variety of definitions of what constitutes a crime of violence or a violent felony.  These different approaches lead to confusion in the application of laws that depend on the definitions.

And recommended that Congress act to:

  •  Amend the career offender directive to ensure drug offenders with no prior violent offenses are not sentenced under the career offender guideline; and
  • Adopt a single uniform definition of “crime of violence” for all criminal law purposes so that it does not apply to what are essentially non violent offenses.

FAMM has also urged the Commission to reform the career offender guideline.

For more information or for interviews, contact Leila McDowell at 202-822- 6706; lmcdowell@famm.org.