New plan to reform federal drug sentences goes into effect

Many nonviolent drug offenders may be able to apply for reduced sentences

The U.S. Sentencing Commission's (USSC) plan to reform sentencing guidelines for federal drug crimes went into effect Nov. 1, according to the Washington Post. Although the effects of the reforms will largely not be felt until next year, many nonviolent drug offenders can begin petitioning for reduced sentences now. The reforms are part of a broad push by federal authorities to reduce the prison population and address some historic wrongs created by disparate sentencing guidelines during the War on Drugs.

Reduced sentences

The most immediate effect of the USSC's sentencing guidelines will be the ability of nonviolent drug offenders to apply for reduced sentences. The reduced sentencing guidelines that were recently adopted by the USSC apply retroactively, meaning people already convicted and serving sentences under the old guidelines can apply to have their sentences reduced in accordance with the new guidelines. While inmates can apply now, the reduced sentences will not go into effect until November 2015.

It is estimated that the reforms could lead to the early release of nearly 50,000 federal inmates. In petitioning for early release, however, any revised sentence cannot fall below the mandatory minimum sentence for the offense in question since only the U.S. Congress has the authority to reduce mandatory minimum sentences.

Sentencing reform

The reduced sentences are part of a broader drug policy reform taking place across the U.S., both on a state and federal level. The growing number of jurisdictions that have decriminalized marijuana, either for medicinal or recreational use, are helping underscore waning public support for tough sentences for offenses that many Americans no longer consider serious crimes.

Furthermore, as Bloomberg earlier reported, the U.S. Justice Department has supported broad initiatives to reduce the federal prison population, mainly through a movement away from mandatory minimums and towards early release for nonviolent offenders. Experts say the current prison population is bloated and unsustainable, and without reforms will become an increasingly unmanageable strain for taxpayers.

Drug crimes

The above story certainly indicates a shift in attitude towards drug crimes and sentences. While public support for the harsh sentences handed out to minor drug offenders is dropping, it is also important to realize that reforms so far have been uneven. For example, while federal prisoners may benefit from the above reforms, no such benefit will be enjoyed by people imprisoned under state drug laws in Kansas unless state authorities take similar measures as those adopted by their federal counterparts.

Because of the changing and unpredictable nature of drug laws and sentencing today, it is vital for anybody charged with a drug offense to contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. With an experienced attorney, defendants will be able to mount a viable case against either a criminal charge or any unduly harsh sentence.