Drug Sentencing Policy Shift Announced by Federal Authorities

Officials with the U.S. Justice Department have announced a major shift in the overall approach to drug crime sentencing, instructing prosecutors to omit quantity lists for illegal substances for lower-level drug cases.
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This in effect will allow defendants to avoid being subjected to strict federal minimum mandatory sentences for those drug-related offenses.

This sounds like sweeping reform.

However, our Fort Lauderdale drug crime defense lawyers understand that, for now anyway, this is really only applicable for cases that are being handled at the federal level. The reality is that the federal government handles a relatively small number of drug offenses, and an even smaller number of low-level drug offenses. The majority of those cases are handled at the state level.

There are about 2 million people behind bars in this country as we speak. Of those, only about 10 percent are in the federal system. And of those, about a quarter, or 90,000 are imprisoned for drug-related offenses.

The reality is that low-level drug offenses – for example, marijuana busts involving fewer than 100 plants or possession arrests for smaller amounts of crack cocaine – aren’t typically handled at the federal level.

Of course, we are encouraged by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s about-face. Indeed, it’s rare to hear an attorney general talk about the urgency with which we need to address prison overcrowding and the clear and overwhelming racial disparity regarding the prosecution of these drug cases.

But when it comes to state-level drug offenses, which is what you are more likely to be accused of, this change probably won’t have much of an impact. In fact, in Holder’s introduction of reformed policies, he indicates that more drug cases should be handled at the state level anyway.

Still, Holder did say that widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is ineffective and also unsustainable. The U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population, and yet is responsible for nearly one quarter of the world’s prisoners. This costs taxpayers about $80 billion each year.

Holder also pointed out that black male offenders tend to receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than those imposed on white offenders. He said that non-violent offenders take up the majority of our federal prisons, and that we have reached a critical capacity.

Holder urged federal prosecutors to use more discretion with regard to how certain drug offenders are charged, so as to avoid triggering a minimum mandatory sentence for a non-violent drug offender who is not a major player in the trafficking game. These are offenders who typically have no ties to drug gangs, cartels or international traffickers.

Perhaps the biggest change we will see immediately is that more of these cases will go to trial. Without strict minimum mandatory sentencing, prosecutors will no longer have the same muscle to strong-arm plea deals out of defendants.

Holder said prosecutors should instead focus on reform and drug treatment.

There has also recently been legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate that could give federal judges a wider degree of discretion with regard to sentencing for even high-level drug offenders.

If you are charged with a crime in Palm Beach or Broward counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.

Additional Resources:
Justice Dept. Seeks to Curtail Stiff Drug Sentences, Aug. 12, 2013, By Charlie Savage, The New York Times
More Blog Entries:
“Bong Ban” in Florida Becomes Law July 1, July 2, 2013, Fort Lauderdale Drug Crime Defense Lawyer Blog

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