Drug Trafficking Sentences Likely to Decrease Under Amendment 821
The recent passage of Amendment 821 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission represents a major development that will likely lead to reduced sentences for many federal drug trafficking offenses. This amendment, set to take effect November 1, 2023, makes several changes to the sentencing guidelines that give judges more discretion to issue shorter, fairer sentences for certain drug crimes.
In this article, we’ll break down exactly what Amendment 821 does, who it will impact, and what it might mean for the future of federal drug sentencing.
What Does Amendment 821 Do?
Amendment 821 makes two main changes to how sentences are calculated for federal drug trafficking offenses:
- It reduces the impact of criminal history points for prior drug possession offenses when determining a defendant’s guideline range. This will result in lower guideline ranges for offenders with minor drug histories.
- It allows judges to impose sentences below the guideline range for nonviolent drug offenders who meet certain criteria, like having minimal criminal history. This gives judges more flexibility to issue sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases.
Specifically, the amendment does a few key things:
- Limits how much prior drug possession offenses increase a defendant’s criminal history score. Minor possession crimes often trigger substantial increases in sentences even if they occurred long ago.
- Expands the criteria judges can consider when deciding if “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist to reduce a sentence through compassionate release. This makes more inmates eligible for sentence reductions.
- Gives judges discretion to sentence below the guideline range for nonviolent drug offenders who meet certain requirements, like having very limited criminal history.
So in essence, Amendment 821 recalibrates sentences for drug offenses and gives judges more leeway to issue sentences below mandatory minimums for low-level crimes.
Who Does Amendment 821 Impact?
According to estimates from the Sentencing Commission, Amendment 821 could potentially reduce sentences for around 11,500 currently incarcerated individuals convicted of federal drug crimes.
However, not all of these inmates will see their sentences automatically reduced. The amendment expands judicial discretion, but judges will still need to review cases individually to decide if a sentence reduction is appropriate.
In general, the inmates most likely to receive relief under Amendment 821 include:
- Nonviolent drug offenders with minimal criminal histories
- Low-level offenders, like mules or street dealers
- People serving lengthy sentences for small drug amounts
- Inmates with health issues or other circumstances warranting compassionate release
People convicted of serious violent offenses, drug kingpins, high-level traffickers, and major distributors are less likely to get sentencing breaks under the amendment.
But thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving harsh sentences could potentially see reductions of a year or more. Even inmates with prior drug convictions could benefit from the changes to how criminal history is calculated.
Potential Impact on Drug Sentencing
While not a drastic overhaul, supporters say Amendment 821 represents meaningful progress in reforming federal drug sentencing laws and reducing disparities with state sentences.
Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums argue the amendment is a small but important step toward restoring judicial discretion and issuing fairer, less punitive sentences for low-level drug crimes.
If implemented as intended, Amendment 821 could have several positive effects over time:
- Shorter sentences for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders
- Less emphasis on minor criminal history when determining sentences
- More opportunities for compassionate release and second chances
- Incremental reduction of prison overcrowding and costs
Critics counter that the amendment does not go far enough. They argue:
- It fails to directly reduce mandatory minimums, which remain unchanged by this amendment.
- Nonviolent offenders with gun possession still face lengthy sentences.
- Sentences are still disproportionately long for certain drug crimes compared to other offenses.
- Racial disparities may persist without more comprehensive reforms.
So while Amendment 821 grants judges some increased flexibility, mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines will continue driving federal drug sentences. Broader reforms are likely needed to significantly transform sentencing policies.
Looking Ahead: Future Reforms
The passage of Amendment 821 signals a potential shift toward more bipartisan support for modest sentencing reforms. The changes it enacted received unanimous support among the commissioners at the Sentencing Commission.
Advocates hope Amendment 821 will lay the groundwork for additional incremental reforms, possibly including:
- Directly reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress
- Expanding the safety valve to include more drug offenders with minor criminal histories
- Increasing availability of parole and earned time credits to allow for earlier release