George F. Hildebrandt
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Federal Sentencing Laws May Soon Be Changing

Being investigated, prosecuted, and convicted by a federal court is never a pleasant experience. The long and drawn-out process can wear a person down without ever having a prison sentence imposed on them. But the real anguish comes at sentencing, when a convicted federal defendant has their fate determined. Although many would like to believe otherwise, a sentence is not completely up to a federal judicial officer. Mandatory minimum sentences required by many federal laws play a crucial role in deciding how long a person will be spending behind bars or under a supervised release program. Some of the mandatory sentences have been called particularly harsh and even cruel, but a change may be on the horizon.

This July,President Obama commuted the sentences of nearly 50 individuals who were serving lengthy sentences in federal prison. All of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were convicted of crimes involving drugs, but also were considered non-violent. They were also all given mandatory sentences that were prescribed by federal statutes, a set of instructions for federal judicial officers that identifies specific crimes and imposes mandatory sentences based on their nature.

For example, an individual that is found guilty of possessing with intent to distribute a specified quantity of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or LSD could face a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment, even for a first offense, and regardless of any compelling mitigating circumstances. Having a previous drug conviction could result in a mandatory minimum of a 20-year term of imprisonment, and a third conviction requires that the defendant serve a term of life in a federal prison. (21 USC §§ 841(a), 841(b)(1)(A); § 2D1.1)

In visiting a medium-security facility in El Reno, Oklahoma, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit an operating federal prison. The visit, which came ahead of the sentence commutations, was a part of a Vice and HBO documentary on the unfair nature of sentencing in federal non-violent drug cases. President Obama has taken steps to change the sometimes-harsh penalties imposed on non-violent offenders by creating a bipartisan working group made up of Congress members from both sides of the aisle as well as wealthy political donors with conservative ties. It appears to be President Obama's hope that federal sentencing laws can be modified in order to ensure fair and equitable treatment those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

During his campaigns, President Obama pledged that he would work toward lowering the maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In 2010, Congress passed and the President signed into law a bill that ironed out the disparities in minimum sentences for those convicted of dealing or being in possession of crack cocaine versus those with powder cocaine.

As of now, the reality is that if you are caught dealing or manufacturing drugs and charged at the federal level, you will likely face a significant minimum sentence. Currently, the only way to ensure that you are not sent to prison for an extended period of time is not being convicted in the first place. Therefore, if you are under investigation or have been arrested on a federal drug charge, it is in your best interest to contact an attorney with extensive experience representing criminal defendants in federal court. Contact George Hildebrandt, an experienced criminal defense attorney with over 30 years of experience.

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