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Drug sentencing guidelines implicate controversial policy issues

The penalties for many drug crimes can be surprisingly harsh, partly due to the federal sentencing scheme. For example, a charge of drug trafficking may implicate federal law and the sentencing guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Notably, various federal leaders have already made efforts to reform the drug sentencing guidelines. For example, the guidelines for drug trafficking offenses were lowered in early 2014, and the Commission recently announced that it had voted to apply that change retroactively. By one estimate, tens of thousands of defendants currently serving time on drug trafficking charges may now be able to request a hearing to lower their sentences.

Similarly, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has provided direction to U.S. Attorneys to avoid charging defendants accused of drug crimes in a way that might implicate punitive mandatory minimum sentencing. In addition, the U.S. House of Representatives also recently blocked an attempt by the Drug Enforcement Administration to block marijuana reform.

As those federal initiatives suggest, the issue of criminal sentencing invokes many policy considerations. On the one hand, officials may hope that severe sentences serve as a crime deterrent. Long sentences may also provide time for a defendant to rehabilitate. In practice, however, advocates fear that the sentencing guidelines may have a racially disparate impact.

According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, selling or using drugs is roughly equal between African-Americans and whites. However, the prosecution rate and sentences handed out for drug crimes between those two racial groups are not equal.

With so much at stake, anyone facing a drug crime should seek representation from a skilled criminal defense attorney. An attorney can work to reduce charges, prepare a strong defense, and protect an accused against unfair prosecution tactics or sentencing.

Source: Huffington Post, “United States Sentencing Commission Votes to Retroactively Apply Drug Sentencing Reductions to Tens of Thousands of People,” Anthony Papa, July 18, 2014

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