Sentencing for federal drug crimes has been criticized as being unduly harsh, especially for low level drug offenders. Federal sentencing guidelines have sometimes resulted in seemingly unjust high prison terms for low level non-violent offenders. Changes to the federal sentencing guidelines in 2014 led to the implementation of Amendment 782, commonly referred to as "Drugs Minus Two,"which lowered many drug quantity offense levels by two levels. These sentencing changes apply to drug convictions under federal law and not state law. For some federal prisoners, this reduction translates to two years off their sentences and results in early release from prison. The first round of approximately 6,000 federal prisoners freed as a result of Amendment 782 was released in November 2015.
The changes that come as a result of Amendment 782 are the result of an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that are set by the United States Sentencing Commission. Federal sentencing guidelines are no longer binding on the court during sentencing. However, they are one of the factors that a judge must consider. Statutory mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for drug offences are set by Congress. Therefore, the changes above do not affect the mandatory minimum and maximum sentences set by Congress.
Applying for Early Release
Application of Amendment 782 is not automatic, and a prisoner seeking to lower his sentence has to first make a motion in the sentencing court. If the court determines that the prisoner meets the requirements for sentence reduction, the court determines a new guideline range for the prisoner by substituting the new sentencing guidelines for those that were used when the prisoner was originally sentenced. Prisoners who are serving a mandatory minimum sentence and those who were convicted for crimes other than drug crimes are generally not eligible for reductions under Amendment 782. Additionally, a prisoner who was sentenced as a career offender may not be eligible to receive a sentence reduction because someone who is classified as a career offender is sentenced under the Federal Career Offender guidelines, even for a drug related conviction.
Ultimately, reductions are not guaranteed after making a petition - the court has the discretion to approve or deny a prisoner's petition. In deciding whether to lower a prisoner's sentence, the court may consider several other factors aside from the lower offense levels, including the defendant's post-conviction conduct and criminal history. The U.S. Attorney's office may also oppose a prisoner's attempt to get early release as a result of the new rules.
For prisoners who were originally sentenced to terms that were two levels lower than the sentencing guidelines, it is unlikely that a petition for reduction would result in further reductions, unless the original reduction was the result of cooperation with law enforcement.
Contact a Syracuse Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are a facing New York State or federal drug possession, manufacturing, or trafficking charges, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you. Contact experienced Syracuse criminal defense attorney George F. Hildebrandt for a consultation today.