U.S. Sentencing Commission Votes to Reduce Federal Drug-Trafficking Sentences

Unanimously, it was done. At a public meeting on April 10, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to amend the federal sentencing guidelines in a way that is expected to reduce the average sentence for most drug-trafficking cases from 62 months to 51 months. The vote was anticipated by a speech that was delivered by the chair of the Sentencing Commission on March 26 and covered here.

So what exactly will the proposed amendment do?

To understand that, here’s a crash course on the federal sentencing guidelines in general and the drug-trafficking guideline in particular.

The sentencing guidelines work like math. They apply geometry and arithmetic to arrive at an advisory (i.e. guideline) range for the appropriate sentence in a given case (e.g. 30-37 months). In geometry, do you remember that stuff about x- and y-axes? Well, the guidelines mainly concern themselves with that, too.

If you need a visual, take a look at this sentencing table, which shows all possible sentencing ranges under the current guidelines.

See that? The x-axis is your criminal history, which is based on the number of criminal history points you’ve accumulated in your lifetime. The total number of points will place you in one of six Criminal History Categories, and as you can see from the table, your Criminal History Category will affect your guideline range. If you have no criminal history, which means you’re in Criminal History Category I, you’re better off, and if you’re in Category VI, then even a relatively minor new conviction can put you in prison for a while.

The y-axis, on the other hand, is something called the Offense Level, and it’s based on the specific statute you’re accused of violating. That specific statute—say, bank robbery under 18 U.S.C. § 2113—corresponds to a specific guideline provision, which for bank robbery is § 2B3.1. If you look up that guideline, you’ll see that bank robbery carries a base offense level of 20. That’s a start, but then you add to that number based on the aggravating factors in § 2B3.1. How much money did you steal, for example? Did you use a gun? Did anyone get hurt? If so, you’re going to wind up with a bigger number than 20. Sometimes, the guidelines provide for mitigating factors, in which case you subtract rather than add. In the end, the final number you get is called your Total Offense Level.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, but once you’re done adding or subtracting, and once you’ve calculated a Total Offense Level and Criminal History Category, you go to the sentencing table, cross-reference your x- and y-axes, and voilà: that’s your guideline range.

How does all this relate to the Sentencing Commission’s proposed amendment? Well, the main guideline for drug-trafficking offenses is § 2D1.1, and the base offense level under that guideline is usually determined by the quantity of drugs involved. What the proposed amendment will do is lower the base offense level by two points across all drug types and quantities. So the same amount of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine that used to trigger a base offense level of 36 will now trigger a 34; the amount that used to result in a base offense level of 20 will now result in a base offense level of 18; and so on.

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