U.S. Attorney general Eric Holder is proposing to reduce sentencing exposure for 70 percent of the drug offenders in the federal system. The attorney general is trying to cut the burden on the Federal Bureau of Prison population. The proposal will reduce current mandatory minimum punishments for non-violent drug offenders.
Holder says that:
"Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason. Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."
The current guidelines will remain in effect until the federal sentencing commission votes on the proposal next month. Holder, instructed all federal prosecutors not to object if defense attorneys ask judges to consider the new lighter proposed guidelines.
Current mandatory federal drug sentences are ridiculous. First time offenders with certain drug quantities face ten years federal time for an offense that would likely result in a year in a state court. These crimes are not in the federal system because they are exceptionally heinous or because of enormous drug quantities. Rather, they are just in federal court because federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over most drug crimes.
Many people would be surprised by how easy it is for a federal prosecutor to blow a federal drug offenders sentence through the roof. Federal judges are allowed to consider "relevant conduct" at sentencing. This means that if a suspect is caught with a small amount of drugs but reliable evidence shows that he previously sold large quantities of drugs. A federal court can sentence him as if he were in possession of the entire large quantity of drugs. This "reliable" information can come from snitches hoping to reduce their own sentences. The predictable and absurd consequence of this structure is that jailhouse informants frequently accuse each other of exaggerated distribution amounts resulting in astronomical sentences.
Holder's proposed lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time imposed on a drug offender, Justice Department officials said. This will reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 people within five years. Almost half of the 216,000 people serving federal time are doing so for drug crimes. Holder says:
"By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,"
All federal criminal defense attorneys need to be aware of this event. Federal sentencing law is literally changing as I am writing this article. Eric Holder's announcement today could affect criminal sentences imposed as early as tomorrow morning. Federal sentencing practices remain out of step with reality. This, however, is movement in the right direction. By staying ahead of these developments I intend to use this information to assist my clients.