Drug Trafficking – Reduced and Retroactive Prison Sentencing

Our Prison System: Overcrowded and Expensive

Over the past few decades, prison overcrowding has become a growing national concern. As of August 29, 2015, there were more than 94,000 individuals serving time in federal facilities for drug related offenses.[1] This figure is an increase from around five thousand inmates in 1980 when Ronald Reagen took office. In addition, the federal prison system currently costs taxpayers approximately 6.7 billion dollars a year to house these inmates. [2] A Congressional Budget Office analysis in September of 2014 found that passing a bipartisan bill in Congress to reform mandatory minimum sentences, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would reduce prison costs by $4 billion in just the first decade. The Justice Department projected savings of at least an additional $7.8 billion in the second decade. [3]

 “War on Drugs:” Reagan’s Assault on Drug Trafficking

These dramatic increases in prison populations are a direct result of the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs.” Under the Reagan administration, federal sentencing guidelines were enacted that led to lengthy sentences for drug traffickers which was the intended goal of the revisions. However, the guideline changes also had the unintended result of placing offenders who only played minor roles in these drug operations, like couriers or “mules,” into lengthy sentences as well. In addition, the tougher laws have done little to slow down the drug trade or curb recidivism, both unfulfilled goals of the tougher criminal laws.

Reduction in Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Drug Trafficking Offenses

All of the factors above led to the revision of the Guidelines which will take effect next month.  In July of 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply a reduction in the federal sentencing guideline levels to most federal drug trafficking offenses retroactively, to take effect in November of 2015. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are criminal law rules that set out a uniform sentencing policy for individuals and organizations convicted of felonies and serious (Class A) misdemeanors in the United States federal courts system.

The Result

The result of this decision is that many offenders currently serving time in the federal penal system could now be eligible to have their sentences reduced. Defendants sentenced in drug cases now have the ability to elect to have their sentence reviewed by the Court and judges now have the ability to review old cases to determine if a sentence reduction is warranted. Judges will review each case independently and determine if a sentence reduction poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate. The hope is that this long-overdue change will continue to allow the government to prevent and punish narcotics trafficking, allow minor offenders an opportunity to reform and be contributing members of society, and cut costs to the everyday taxpayer.

If you or someone you know thinks you may be eligible for a reduced sentence under the new guidelines, please contact a criminal law attorney or you can email our firm at  clientrelations@hullbarrett.com.


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The author of this piece, Brooks K. Hudson, is a criminal defense lawyer focusing on felony and white collar charges.  Prior to practice at Hull Barrett, Brooks worked at the District Attorney’s Office as an Assistant District Attorney.


[1] Inmate Statistics – Offenses,” Federal Bureau of Prisons, accessed August 29, 2015,http://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp.

[2] Office of Management and Budget, “Public Budget Database: Outlays,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Supplemental.

[3] http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/09/17/3568232/the-united-states-had-even-more-prisoners-in-2013

Image Credit: rook76/shutterstock.com