Federal drug sentencing procedures may be changing

Criminal justice commentators on both sides of the political spectrum may agree that a sentence should fit the crime. Yet any agreement may break down when it comes to defining the nature of the sentence.

In the context of drug offenses, for example, a criminal defense attorney might assert that a sentence might take into account the amount of contraband that was seized. A recreational user might expect to receive a lesser sentence than an individual charged with drug trafficking, for example. A criminal defendant who’s also willing to enroll in treatment programs might also be better positioned to plea bargain with prosecutors for a reduced sentence or lesser charges.

Yet federal minimum sentencing laws removed, in large measure, the opportunity for sentencing discretion. A lack of discretion seemed especially glaring in the case of crack cocaine. Before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2010, a conviction for crack cocaine generally implicated a mandatory five-year prison sentence. In contrast, the same weight of cocaine in powder form triggered much lower sentences. The 2010 law reduced that disparity to 18-to-1, down from its original ratio of 100-to-1.

Cocaine arrests made under state law, in contrast, are not subject to federal minimum sentencing laws. At least one study found that only a minority of American states had more severe penalties for crack cocaine instead of powder. Under state law, a drug defense attorney might have even more opportunities for presenting mitigating factors to prosecutors during plea bargains.

Source: nytimes.com, “Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off,” Aug. 1, 2013

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