Reduced Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Drug Offenses

The United States Sentencing Commission ("USSC"), an independent agency in the judicial branch, has voted unanimously to amend the federal sentencing guidelines to reduce the sentences for most drug trafficking offenses. Perhaps most notably, this amendment will apply retroactively. Therefore, the amendment could shorten sentences for nearly 50,000 people who are currently incarcerated for drug trafficking offenses. Under these amended guidelines, eligible individuals may ask for, and be granted, a hearing in front of a federal judge to determine whether or not their sentence can be reduced to match the new guidelines. Offenders whose sentencing reduction requests are approved may be released from prison as early as November 1, 2015.

So what does this mean for offenders that are currently incarcerated in North Carolina? Drug trafficking is the selling, manufacture, distribution, or possession of more than a certain large amount of a controlled substance. An incarcerated person who was convicted of drug trafficking may be eligible for early release due to these amendments. The USSC is essentially saying that they were too harsh in sentencing drug trafficking offenders in the past and are now willing reduce those sentences in certain situations.

No offenders will automatically receive a sentence reduction but the amended guidelines will apply to most imprisoned persons who were convicted of drug trafficking offenses and will give such eligible persons the opportunity to apply for a sentencing reduction hearing in front of a district court judge. The USSC estimates that eligible offenders will see average sentence reductions of almost 19 percent. Additionally, while eligibility is not limited by criminal history, violence, or type of drug trafficked, these factors, among others, may be considered in a sentencing hearing. The USSC has specifically noted that public safety will be a crucial factor to be considered in such a hearing.

On April 30, 2014, the USSC submitted the amended guidelines to Congress, specifically reducing "by two the offense levels assigned in the Drug Quantity Table, resulting in lower guideline ranges for most drug trafficking offenses." On July 18, 2014, the USSC voted to make the amendments retroactive so that they will apply to people who have already been sentenced under the old guidelines and are currently imprisoned. Because Congress did not modify or reject the amendments they went into effect on November 1, 2014.

These amendments represent an extension of the continued political efforts to reform federal drug sentencing laws. For example, the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity and the Smarter Sentencing Act have also both been addressed in recent years. In fact, the USSC has maintained that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses is a significant contributor to the racial disparity and overcrowding that has plagued the nation's prison system. Moreover, the Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") currently operates at nearly 140 percent capacity and more than half of the prisoners housed within the BOP are serving time for drug law violations. Consequently, the USSC has characterized these amendments as a step toward greater "fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety." In a recent press release commenting on the sentencing amendments, the USSC implored Congress to address mandatory minimum sentencing penalties.

Judges may begin considering motions based on these amended sentencing guidelines as early as November 1, 2014 and may allow offenders to be released as early as November 1, 2015 so contact Dummit Fradin today for a free consultation if a loved one is currently incarcerated for a drug trafficking charge and you believe he may be eligible for a sentence reduction.

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