Time to Tell the Commission: Cut These Drug Sentences!

Post Date: March 8, 2014

The time has come at last:  it’s time to tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission that federal drug sentencing guidelines need to be lower!

Not all sentencing reforms happen in Congress – some of the biggest and best happen at the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Every year, the Commission takes a look at the federal sentencing guidelines – which apply in every federal criminal case – and decides if changes should be made to them. This year, the Commission decided that one of the changes needed is lowering the sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two levels. The Commission published this recommended “all drugs minus two” change on January 17.

The “all drugs minus two” change would be a small improvement with a big impact: lowering all drug guidelines by two levels would result in federal drug sentences that are roughly 11 months shorter, on average, than sentences under the current drug guidelines. You can see how the “all drugs minus two” amendment would change the federal drug guidelines here.

Unfortunately, this improvement can’t be made overnight – the Commission has to go through a specific process over the next 10 months before the “all drugs minus two” change can go into effect. Also, the Commission is not considering making the proposed “all drugs minus two” change retroactive for federal prisoners at this time. That comes later: the Commission won’t consider retroactivity of this change until later this year, after it acts to reduce drug sentences by two levels (read below for a timeline of how this will work).

The first step in the process is for the Commission to receive feedback from the public (called “public comment”) about the proposed drug guideline changes. The Commission is also seeking input on some other issues, which you can read about here. The Commission will accept public comment on all of these issues until March 18, 2014.

This is where we need your help!

We need you to write letters to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in favor of lowering the drug sentencing guidelines. Letters from individuals make a big impression on the Commission – especially when it is working to lower sentences, something it does very rarely. If some members of Congress want to prevent the Commission from lowering drug guidelines, your letters will help the Commission show that many, many people support shorter federal drug sentences!

That’s why we need you to take action. You can write your own letter or use our sample letter. Letters can be sent to the Commission by regular mail or through email. 

By mail, send your letters to:
U.S. Sentencing Commission
Attn: Public Affairs
One Columbus Circle, N.E., Suite 2-500
Washington, DC  20002-8002

By email, send your letters to: public_comment@ussc.gov or take action here.

Remember: all letters must be sent to the Commission by March 18, 2014!

Write your own letter:
We strongly encourage you to write your own letter to the Commission, explaining why current drug sentencing guidelines are too long and why reducing them by two levels is a good idea. Using your own words will make your letter more useful to the commissioners, who want to lower drug guideline sentences. But if you feel you need some help, please use all or part of our sample letter below. If you do write your own letter, here are some tips:

  • Do personalize the letter if you can, with a story about your experience with harsh drug sentences and why this reduction matters.
  • Don’t write about the legal problems with the trial, plea, prosecution, defense, etc. in your or your loved one’s case. The Commission cannot help you with that.
  • Do be positive and encouraging, even if this reform is not everything you want. It is certainly not all we want, but it is an important first step. We don’t mean that you shouldn’t encourage the Commission to do more, but let them know that you support this effort, even if you see it as not enough.
  • Do feel free to use facts and figures provided by the Commission to bolster your arguments.
  • Don’t write now about making this change retroactive. The Commission will not decide whether to make the guideline retroactive until sometime after May 1, when it will vote to lower the guidelines. We will let you know when it is time to ask the Commission to make the lower drug sentences retroactive.

Use our sample letter:

Re:  Proposed amendment 3

Dear Judge Saris and Commissioners,

I am writing to support the Commission’s proposal to reduce all drug guidelines by two levels.  Drug sentences are too long. Such long sentences hurt individual defendants and their loved ones. [Tell your story here.]

Lengthy drug sentences also contribute to the overcrowding crisis in our federal prisons.  Federal prisons are 37 percent over capacity. This is dangerous for prisoners and prison staff alike and it is a threat to public safety. The Bureau of Prisons is consuming more and more of the shrinking amount of money available to the Justice Department. This means fewer police officers, fewer prosecutors, and less money for cities and counties to prevent crime.  According to the Urban Institute, the amount of time a prisoner – particularly a drug prisoner – serves is the single most important factor in the growth of the federal prison population. Today, half of the 216,000 people in federal prison are serving drug sentences, which averaged more than 70 months in 2012.

Lowering drug sentences by roughly 18 percent would be a strong first step in slowing the growth of the prison population and helping to ensure safe prisons and safe streets.

And, it would be the right thing to do. Federal drug sentences are far too lengthy, and this change is an important first step to making them fairer.

Thank you for proposing this change.

                                                [Your name and address]

Please send your letters to the Commission by mail or email before March 18. Thank you for supporting FAMM and helping us help the Commission pass the “all drugs minus two” change to the federal guidelines. It is the right thing to do!


Julie Stewart
President, FAMM

P.S. Here’s the timeline on how the “all drugs minus two” change will likely roll out this year:

Step 1: January 17 – March 18 – Commission receives feedback from the public (“public comment”) on whether it should adopt the “all drugs minus two” change
Step 2: May 1 – Commission publishes a final list of its proposed guideline changes and sends it to Congress
Step 3:  Sometime after May 1 – the Commission will decide whether and when to make the “all drugs minus two” change retroactive
Step 4: October 31 – Deadline for Congress to vote to reject the Commission’s guideline changes
Step 5: November 1 – Guideline changes go into effect, if Congress hasn’t rejected them