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Amendment 821 is a recent change to the federal sentencing guidelines that could have a major impact on drug sentencing laws. This amendment, passed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2023, makes two key changes: reducing the impact of criminal history “status points,” and allowing judges more flexibility to go below guideline ranges for certain low-level drug offenders.While not a complete overhaul, Amendment 821 represents an important step toward reforming overly punitive drug sentences. Let’s take a look at exactly what it does, who stands to benefit, and what it could mean for the future of drug sentencing reform.
Amendment 821 contains two main parts that change how sentences are calculated under the guidelines:
The sentencing guidelines use a defendant’s criminal history to determine their guideline range. The more past convictions someone has, the more “status points” they receive, increasing their criminal history category.Amendment 821 reduces the impact of status points so that someone’s criminal history category won’t increase as quickly.
This change could especially help people with longer records solely from non-violent drug possession charges.
The other major change is that Amendment 821 allows judges to depart below the guideline range for certain drug offenders with minimal criminal histories.
To qualify, defendants generally must:
This increased flexibility gives judges more discretion to issue shorter sentences for low-level drug crimes when appropriate.
The people most likely to benefit from Amendment 821 are non-violent drug offenders with minimal criminal histories, such as:
Violent criminals and drug kingpins will not receive sentencing breaks under this amendment. But thousands of low-level drug offenders stand to potentially get their sentences reduced by years.The Sentencing Commission estimates around 11,500 currently incarcerated individuals could have lower guideline ranges under Amendment 821.
But meeting the criteria does not guarantee a lower sentence – judges will still have discretion.
For people currently in federal prison, the process to seek a sentence reduction will start November 1, 2023, when Amendment 821 takes effect.
Starting on that date, inmates can file petitions asking the court to lower their sentences under the new rules. If the judge agrees they are eligible, a resentencing hearing will be held where the judge decides whether to actually reduce the sentence.Even if eligible, judges still have discretion on whether to grant a reduction and how much to lower the sentence. But Amendment 821 at least gives inmates a chance.Defendants who have not been sentenced yet could also see impact from Amendment 821 immediately, since judges will calculate guidelines using the new rules.
While not an overhaul of federal drug sentencing, Amendment 821 is an incremental but meaningful step toward reform.For decades, thousands of low-level drug offenders have faced rigid, overly punitive mandatory minimums. Amendment 821 finally gives judges more leeway to issue fair sentences that fit the crime.This increased judicial discretion could help reduce reliance on mandatory minimums and lengthy guideline sentences for minor drug crimes. Judges can now better weigh individual circumstances rather than rigidly following guidelines.Amendment 821 also continues momentum toward reforming criminal history rules that often punish addiction and poverty. By reducing emphasis on status points that exacerbate socioeconomic disparities, it helps move toward a more just system.
However, Amendment 821 is just one small piece of the puzzle. Much more reform is still needed to reduce over-incarceration and make drug sentencing truly fair, including:
Amendment 821 offers hope and a chance at freedom to thousands. But broader reforms are still needed to completely overhaul our punitive approach to drug sentencing.
In the near term, the focus will be on implementation of Amendment 821. Courts will need to handle an influx of petitions from inmates seeking reduced sentences starting in November.
Thousands stand to have sentences lowered by months or even years if judges broadly use their new discretion. But it remains to be seen how often and how much judges will depart from guidelines.Longer term, several other reforms have potential to build on Amendment 821’s progress:
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.
While not revolutionary, Amendment 821 represents an important incremental step toward fairer federal drug sentencing. By reducing emphasis on criminal histories and giving judges more discretion, thousands of low-level drug offenders could see their sentences reduced.Much broader reforms are still needed to completely overhaul the system. But after decades of punitive policies, Amendment 821 provides new hope and a chance at freedom to many non-violent inmates serving unjust sentences.Going forward, all eyes will be on how judges choose to use their new discretion under Amendment 821. But this policy change sends an important signal – the tide is starting to turn away from reflexively harsh drug sentences and toward more nuanced, just approaches.Amendment 821 alone will not fix all the problems with federal drug sentencing. But it is a meaningful step on the long road toward reform.
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