The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to make temporary changes to federal sentencing guidelines last week. The amendments, which were part of the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress this summer, go into effect in federal courts this week. Congress proposed the changes to drug offense guidelines in an effort to equalize sentencing for crack and powder cocaine; however, the changes will likely affect a wide range of North Carolina criminal defendants.
The problem with the crack and powder cocaine guidelines, according to advocates, was that they resulted n harsher sentences for African Americans. Powder cocaine’s sentences were more lenient, and white suburbanites tend to use powder cocaine more than African Americans. Crack cocaine, however, was more prevalent in African American communities, and the guidelines were harsher.
For crack, a five-year mandatory prison term is now triggered at 28 grams, instead of 5 grams or more. The ten-year mandatory prison term is triggered by 280 grams, rather than 50.
The amendments did not stop there, though. They include additional prison time for “aggravating factors” for leaders of drug rings who, for example, coerce family members into dealing drugs. Conversely, the sentence may be lighter for the family members found to have been coerced.
A U.S. Attorney in another district commented that the new crack and cocaine triggers may not have much of an impact on defendants in areas like his, where major trafficking is the focus, rather than individual or small-scale deals. He also noted that the language around aggravating factors does not present a departure from current practices. Courts already take intimidation and leadership roles into consideration in sentencing decisions.
The Commission will decide in May whether to make the amendments permanent.
Resource: Denver Post “Federal Sentencing Guidelines Change Today for Some Crimes” 11/1/10