This month, new federal sentencing guidelines went into effect that will change the way crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses are punished in the federal system. The changes are a response to the Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in August. The Fair Sentencing Act was intended to equalize sentences in cases involving crack cocaine with cases involving powder cocaine.
Congress gave the U.S. Sentencing Commission five years to create new sentencing guidelines that conform to the act. This month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued temporary guidelines to implement the act. The temporary changes may become permanent when the commission meets next May.
When a defendant is convicted in federal court, judges use the sentencing guidelines to calculate a sentence. Although the guidelines are considered to be only advisory, many judges follow them very closely when determining a sentence in drug prosecutions.
The old guidelines required a five-year mandatory minimum sentence if a defendant possessed five grams or more of crack cocaine and a ten-year mandatory minimum for 50 grams or more. The new guidelines increase the amounts of crack cocaine required to trigger the mandatory minimum sentences. The amount for the five-year minimum sentence has increased from five to 28 grams. Similarly, the amount required for the ten-year sentence has increased from 50 to 280 grams.
Although the new guidelines effectively reduce the sentences for possession offenses, they also enhance the sentences of defendants for aggravating factors. Aggravating factors that can lead to increased sentences include leading a drug organization and intimidating others to sell drugs. As a result of these guidelines, sentencing judges will now have more discretion to consider the role a defendant played in drug related activity.
Denver Post: Federal sentencing guidelines change today for some drug crimes; Felisa Cardona, 11/1/2010
Library of Congress: Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (retrieved from: thomas.loc.gov)