On April 10, 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission met publicly and voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for the majority of federal drug trafficking offenses. It also voted to commence a study of the potential impact of making the sentencing reductions retroactive and will consider the issue as required by statute. The vote was unanimous to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across the various drug categories. Under the amendment, the drug guidelines would remain connected to statutory minimum penalties. By the Commission’s estimate, 70% of defendants in federal drug trafficking cases would qualify for the amended standard, therefore decreasing their sentences by an average of 17%, or eleven months.

The Drug Quantity Table amendment would accomplish the following:

  • Result in a two-level reduction in the base offense levels for all drug varieties in the Drug Quantity Table in guideline §2D1.1, which regulates drug trafficking cases
  • Keep the guideline penalties consistent with the existing statutory minimum drug penalties by altering the Drug Quantity Table so that those eligible for the 5-year and 10-year minimum penalties would receive base offense levels 24 and 30 (which entail 51 to 63 months and 97 to 121 months, respectively), rather than levels 26 and 32, which result in sentences of 63 to 78 months and 121 to 151 months respectively
  • Keep level 38 as the highest base offense level in the drug quantity table for the highest drug quantities

The Commission has focused on reviewing federal prison capacities and expenses while remaining committed to public safety. By its estimate, the proposed changes to the drug guidelines would lower the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over a five year period. The amendment inspired more than 20,000 letters during the public comment period.

Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said that the small reduction in penalties for drug trafficking offenses is a key step in reducing overcrowding at federal prisons. The current federal prison population is nearly three times what it was in 1991, making its fair and proportionate reduction a matter of urgency. The federal prison system contains 216,000 prisoners: although the United States is home to only 5% of the world’s population, it has nearly 25% of its prisoners.

Saris confirmed that the Committee gave public safety appropriate consideration when making its decision, and that drug offense sentences would be monitored on an ongoing basis to determine if further modifications will be necessary. Existing guideline and statutory conditions support longer sentences for repeat offenders and drug traffickers who use guns or violence.

Attorney General Eric Holder said that the reduction in federal sentencing guidelines will send a powerful message about the necessity of reserving the toughest penalties for the most serious crimes. Months earlier, he ordered prosecutors to use their discretion to help achieve some of the goals, a move that some people (including a federal judge on the sentencing commission) saw as bypassing the authority of both the Commission and Congress.

If Congress does not disallow any of the amendments, they will go into effect November 1, 2014.