Shorter Prison Sentences For Must Drug Offenses Could Begin In November

By McCarton Ackerman 04/15/14

Come November 1, sentences won't be as long for low-level drug offenders, though traffickers and violent felons will continue to serve extensive time.

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A federal agency has passed a recommendation for shorter prison sentences in the majority of federal drug offenses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which advises federal judges on sentencing, will see their amendment go into effect on Nov. 1, unless it's opposed by Congress.

The recommendation was unanimously approved by the commission and calls for sentencing of low-level offenders to be reduced by two levels, or an average of 11 months in each case. Under the new laws, someone caught with a kilogram of heroin would serve 51 to 63 months rather than 63 to 78 months. However, the amendment won’t reduce penalties for drug traffickers with the greatest quantities of drugs, or for those offenses combined with violence or possession of a firearm.

"Quantity, while still an important proxy for seriousness, no longer needs to be quite as central to the calculation," said Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Patti Saris. The commission made their recommendation based on data which examined a 2007 law that lowered penalties for crack cocaine offenders, finding that those who served shorter sentences were no more likely to return to prison than those with longer sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder said lowering sentences based on drug quantities would "rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety." But despite the broad range of support, some Republicans in Congress who oppose the recommendation believe lenient sentences would actually increase crime rates. Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association and former drug czar under President George W. Bush, felt that reducing sentences would weaken the leverage of prosecutors.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.