Drug Sentencing Reform Under Amendment 821
Amendment 821 is a recent change to federal sentencing laws that aims to reduce unfairly harsh punishments for drug offenses. Passed in 2023 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, this amendment makes two main reforms:
Eliminating Double Punishment from “Status Points”
The sentencing guidelines use a defendant’s criminal history to determine their recommended sentence range. Folks get extra “status points” added to their history for committing a crime while on probation, parole, supervised release, etc.
The idea was to punish repeat offenders more harshly. But research found those extra status points don’t actually predict whether someone will re-offend. They just make sentences longer for no good reason.
So Amendment 821 eliminates status points. This prevents “double punishment” that wasn’t justified.
For example, let’s say Joe got probation for a minor drug charge. A year later, while still on probation, he gets arrested again for another minor drug offense.
Before Amendment 821, those status points for violating probation would shoot Joe up to a Criminal History Category III. That could easily double his recommended sentence, even though it’s his first real conviction.
Now, without the status points, Joe would stay at Criminal History Category I. That keeps his sentence proportional to the offenses.
This change especially helps folks at the lower end of the criminal history spectrum avoid inflated sentences. It helps ensure the punishment fits the crime.
New Reduction for First-Time Offenders
The other big reform is that Amendment 821 allows judges to go below the guideline range for certain first-time drug offenders.
To qualify, defendants generally must:
- Have 0 criminal history points under the new status points rules
- Not have any prior violent offenses or sex offenses
- Not have used violence or weapons in the current offense
- Not have played a leadership role in a drug trafficking organization
If defendants meet these criteria, judges now have more discretion to issue shorter sentences for low-level drug crimes.
For example, let’s say Mary got arrested for mailing her friend a package of marijuana. It’s her first offense, so she has zero criminal history points.
Before Amendment 821, Mary could have faced 12-18 months under the guidelines. But with the new reduction for first-timers, her range drops to 6-12 months.
This change distinguishes true first-time offenders from career criminals. It helps ensure punishments aren’t overly harsh for minor drug crimes.
Here’s the big deal – Amendment 821 was made partially retroactive. This means it can reduce sentences already handed down, not just future cases.
There’s a few great reasons to apply it retroactively:
- It creates more proportional punishments by eliminating unfair double punishment from status points
- Research shows status points don’t predict recidivism anyway
- It reduces racial disparities and excessive punishment of addiction
- It saves taxpayer money from unnecessary incarceration
- Courts and prosecutors supported retroactivity to increase fairness
Of course there’s also arguments against retroactivity. Some say it could burden courts and hurt public safety. But most experts believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
Here’s the process inmates will go through to get a reduced sentence under the retroactive part of Amendment 821:
- File a motion for resentencing starting November 1, 2023 when the amendment takes effect
- Judges review motions and determine if inmates are eligible
- If eligible, the court holds a resentencing hearing
- At the hearing, judges decide whether to reduce the sentence or not
Even if inmates are eligible, it’s not a guarantee their sentence will be reduced. But Amendment 821 gives thousands of prisoners a chance at freedom sooner.
The Sentencing Commission estimates around 11,500 currently incarcerated individuals could benefit from retroactivity. Their sentences could be reduced by an average of 11-18%.
Impact on Drug Sentencing
So how does all this specifically impact drug sentencing? In two key ways:
1. Reducing Excessive Punishment for Low-Level Offenses
Thousands of non-violent drug offenders have faced rigid, overly harsh sentences under mandatory minimums and strict sentencing guidelines.
Amendment 821 finally gives judges more discretion to issue fair sentences that fit the individual and the crime. It helps reduce excessive punishment for minor drug offenses.
2. More Focus on Rehabilitation Over Retribution
By eliminating status points that punish addiction, Amendment 821 helps move away from failed policies of the past.
The reforms represent a shift toward viewing drug abuse as a public health issue rather than solely a criminal justice issue.
Treatment and rehabilitation programs have proven more successful for many drug offenders. Amendment 821’s reforms align the justice system more with that public health approach.
Arguments Around Drug Sentencing Reform
While not a complete overhaul, Amendment 821 is an incremental but meaningful step toward reform. However, there are still good arguments on both sides of the broader debate around drug sentencing reforms:
Support Drug Sentencing Reforms
- Overly harsh sentences have fueled mass incarceration without improving public safety
- Treatment and public health approaches are more successful for drug offenders
- Sentences should be proportional, fair, and consider individual circumstances
- Reforms can reduce racial disparities and poverty-to-prison pipelines
Oppose Drug Sentencing Reforms
- Some criminals deserve strict punishment as a deterrent
- Shorter sentences could lead to higher recidivism rates
- Reforms reduce leverage prosecutors have to get plea deals
- Mandatory minimums give consistent sentences for similar crimes
There are fair points on both sides. But study after study has found better outcomes when drug abuse is treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
Most Americans now support treatment-focused reforms over failed “tough on crime” rhetoric. Amendment 821 seems like a smart incremental step in that direction.
While Amendment 821 doesn’t fix every issue, it’s a big deal for reforming excessive sentences. This change offers hope to thousands of inmates and their families.
Going forward, the focus will be on implementation. Courts will need to handle an influx of petitions from inmates seeking reduced sentences starting in November 2023.
Thousands stand to have sentences lowered by months or even years if judges broadly use their new discretion. But it remains to be seen exactly how much impact Amendment 821 will have in practice.
Longer term, several other reforms have potential to build on Amendment 821’s progress:
- Eliminating mandatory minimums for drug offenses
- Expanding diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration
- Increasing access to parole and compassionate release
- Removing barriers to re-entry and successful rehabilitation
Amendment 821 signals growing momentum for reform. With continued advocacy and policy changes, our punitive approach to drug sentencing can continue evolving into a more just, effective system.