FindLaw KnowledgeBasePublished: 2011-02-23
The federal sentencing guidelines are discretionary measures intended to create both uniformity and proportionality in sentencing for people convicted of federal crimes. For years, though, mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in extremely disproportionate sentences for some federal drug crimes.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 called for the development of guidelines for federal sentences. Through the guidelines, Congress sought to narrow the disparity in sentences imposed for similar crimes committed by people in similar circumstances. Congress also sought proportionality so the sentence imposed for a particular crime would match the severity of the offense.
Accordingly, the United States Sentencing Commission formed to develop a national sentencing policy for federal courts. The Commission eventually produced federal sentencing guidelines that structure judges’ sentencing discretion.
Basically, the federal sentencing guidelines allocate a base-level sentence to each federal offense. Aggravating factors may increase the suggested sentence length, and mitigating factors may decrease the suggested sentence. Although federal judges are not required to follow the sentencing guidelines, deviation from the sentencing structure is rare.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences
In addition to the federal sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences also affect sentences for federal drug crimes. In the late 1980s, amid growing concern over crack cocaine use, Congress passed legislation creating mandatory minimum sentence lengths for federal crimes involving crack cocaine and other drugs.
Under the mandatory minimum laws, someone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine —the weight of just two pennies — received at least five years in prison. Someone convicted of possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine would receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. In contrast, the weight required to trigger the same sentences with powder cocaine was 100 times greater.
Advocates assert that different mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses greatly undermine the uniformity and proportionality goals of the sentencing guidelines. And recently, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity between the sentences from 100:1 to 18:1. It also eliminated the five year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
Regardless of the modification, however, harsh mandatory minimum sentences still loom over many people facing federal drug crime charges. If you are under investigation for or have been charged with a federal drug crime, contact an experienced federal drug crime lawyer to help you defend your rights and present your best case against severe mandatory minimum sentences and the federal sentencing guidelines.