Federal Prison Sentences for Drug Crimes

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 Is There a Minimum Sentence for Drug Crimes?

Yes. Under federal law, anyone convicted of a drug crime will face at least a mandatory minimum prison sentence. This sentence is referred to as a “mandatory minimum” and has been the center of many controversies.

What Are the Effects of Mandatory Minimums on the Law?

Federal judges were able to issue criminal penalties before Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. A judge could consider factors such as a defendant’s personal circumstances and the facts surrounding a particular case.

The Act, however, removed this power from the courts by dictating a mandatory minimum sentence for certain types of crimes.

The Act also focused primarily on the type and quantity of drugs involved in the crime. Therefore, these two factors determined the outcome of a criminal drug case instead of evaluating standard factors, such as the defendant’s criminal record or their involvement in the crime.

A defendant convicted of a federal drug crime could previously receive the following penalties under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act:

  • A conviction of a drug offense involving the trafficking of 500 grams or more of powder cocaine carried a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison.
  • A conviction of a drug offense involving the trafficking of only 5 grams of crack cocaine carried the same mandatory minimum sentence.
  • A conviction of possession of 5 or more grams of crack cocaine was considered a felony that was punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in federal prison.

It soon became obvious that the Act targeted minority criminal defendants based on the penalties imposed for powder versus crack cocaine. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address this issue.

Additionally, this law only applied to criminal defendants convicted after August of 2010, meaning anyone convicted before August 2010 was still subject to the 1986 law’s consequences.

As a result of the First Step Act passed by Congress in 2018, the law has been revised again. The First Step Act permits retroactive sentencing for drug crimes committed before and after 2010. Although this Act is an improvement over the two previous laws, its provisions may not apply in every case, and not every defendant may be eligible for a reduced sentence.

What Is the Process of Determining Federal Mandatory Drug Sentences?

In general, federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on a variety of factors, including the following:

  • The specific drug crime that the defendant is accused of;
  • A defendant’s criminal history, including whether they are repeat offenders or first-timers;
  • The schedule in which the controlled substance or illegal drug is classified; or
  • The amount of drugs involved in the crime.

Prosecutors will review the factors and compare them with the federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, which offer the prescribed prison term. This will be the absolute minimum amount of time or penalty the defendant can receive if convicted of drug charges. The prosecutor can also add time to the mandatory minimum sentence, even though they cannot recommend a lower sentence.

In other words, if a criminal defendant is convicted of a crime that involves fifty grams of methamphetamine, the federal mandatory drug sentencing guidelines state that they must receive at least ten years’ imprisonment. As a result, neither the judge nor the prosecutor can alter the sentence to anything less than ten years in federal prison.

Do Different Drugs Have Mandatory Minimums?

This will depend on two factors: the activity type and the drug’s weight. Depending on the type of activity, it can be classified as either possession or trafficking. The two overlap, but there is a difference between possessing a drug for personal use and possessing it for distribution. The following is a basic outline of federal sentences based on those two types of activities.

A person who is in possession of the drug has it on them, has physical control over it, or is aware of and able to control it. Penalties for simple possession include:

  • 1st offense
    • Up to 1 year
    • At least $1,000
  • 2nd offense
    • 15 days to 2 years
    • At least $2,500
  • 3rd offense
    • 90 days to 3 years
    • At least $5,000

Trafficking means the manufacture, distribution, and sale of an illegal drug.

  • Cocaine
    • 5 kilograms or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
    • 500 to 4,999 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
    • Less than 500 grams: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million
  • Crack
    • 280 grams or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
    • 28 to 279 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
    • Less than 28 grams: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million
  • Heroin
    • 5 kilograms or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
    • 500 to 4,999 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
    • Less than 500 grams: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million
  • LSD
    • 10 grams or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
    • 1 to 9 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
    • Less than 1 gram: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million
  • Marijuana
    • 1000 kilograms or more or 1000 or more plants: 10 years to life and $10-50 million fine
    • 100 to 999 kilograms or 100 to 999 plants: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
    • 50 to 99 kilograms or 50 to 99 plants: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million
    • Under 50 kilograms4, 10 kilograms of hashish, 1 kilogram of hashish oil, or 1 to 49 plants: Up to 5 years and $250,000-$1 million
  • Methamphetamine
    • 50 grams or more, or 500 grams or more of a mixture: 10 years to life and $10-50 million fine
    • 5 to 49 grams, or 50 to 499 grams of a mixture: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
    • Less than 5 grams, or less than 50 grams of a mixture: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million

Do Mandatory Minimums Pose a Problem?

Several unintended consequences have resulted from mandatory sentencing schemes. Until 2010, crack was punished 100 times more severely by weight than cocaine. Minorities who were disenfranchised suffered a marked discriminatory impact as a consequence.

Another example is how LSD is weighed. Weight is determined by mixture, according to the statute.

LSD is usually ingested by adding it to a small piece of paper or a sugar cube. In other words, the weight of the paper or sugar would be considered a “mixture.” However, the weight of a glass vial would not be considered a “mixture.”

For example, someone who has one hit of LSD on a sugar cube may be given a longer sentence than someone who has one hit on a piece of paper, even if there is the same amount of active ingredient present.

The same person could receive a less severe sentence for 100 hits of acid in a glass vial compared to one hit on a sugar cube or piece of paper.

What Is the Controversy Surrounding Mandatory Minimums?

Drug sentences with mandatory minimums have been criticized for several reasons, including:

  • Despite initial expectations, they do not seem to deter crime or maintain society’s safety;
  • The number of people incarcerated for drug crimes results in overcrowding in federal prisons;
  • The higher incarceration rates demonstrate their blatant prejudice against the African American population.
  • Drug violations have led to a greater proportion of women being imprisoned.

In addition, they do not allow a judge to use their traditional authority to impose a punishment appropriate to the crime. Additionally, they increase tax rates, cause unfair outcomes in criminal drug cases, and fail to eliminate sentencing disparities as intended.

Is Legal Advice Necessary?

Despite increased scrutiny, federal mandatory minimum laws remain extremely serious. If you may be prosecuted under a federal drug statute, seeking the advice of an experienced drug lawyer is the best way to ensure your rights and freedom are protected.

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