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The Spodek Law Group understands how delicate high-profile cases can be, and has a strong track record of getting positive outcomes. Our lawyers service a clientele that is nationwide. With offices in both LA and NYC, and cases all across the country - Spodek Law Group is a top tier law firm.

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How to Reduce a Federal Sentence: Legal Strategies and Options

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 10:02 am

How to Reduce a Federal Sentence: Legal Strategies and Options

Getting a federal sentence reduced can be challenging, but there are several legal strategies and options that may help. This article will discuss approaches including retroactive law changes, compassionate release, executive clemency, and participation in recidivism-reduction programs.

Retroactive Law Changes

One of the best ways to get a federal sentence reduced is through retroactive changes in sentencing laws and guidelines. Here are some examples:

  • Fair Sentencing Act: This 2010 law reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. In 2018, the First Step Act made these changes retroactive for people convicted before 2010[1].
  • Drug Minimums: The First Step Act reduced some federal mandatory minimums for drug offenses. People serving under the old guidelines can petition courts for a reduction[2].
  • Sentencing Guidelines: When the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowers sentencing guidelines ranges, it can make the change retroactive so people sentenced under old rules qualify[3].

However, Congress and the Commission do not always make reforms fully retroactive. Advocates recommend Congress routinely make sentencing changes retroactive to fix outdated penalties[1].

Compassionate Release

Compassionate release allows courts to reduce sentences for “extraordinary and compelling reasons”[4]. The First Step Act expanded eligibility. Reasons can include:

  • Terminal illness
  • Debilitating medical conditions
  • Elderly age
  • Death/incapacitation of a caregiver
  • Other “extraordinary and compelling reasons”

Courts may also consider factors like rehabilitation and nonretroactive law changes[1]. File a petition through the facility warden first, though courts can grant motions if the warden denies or delays[5].

Executive Clemency

The president can grant clemency through a pardon (removing civil disabilities of a conviction) or commutation (shortening a prison sentence) [6]. Petitions are reviewed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Clemency can provide relief even when law changes are not retroactive.

President Obama granted over 1,700 clemency petitions, focusing on excessive drug sentences. Advocates recommend presidents use clemency more broadly to reduce excessive sentences.

Other Strategies

  • Commutation: Ask the governor for a shortened state sentence if you have one.
  • Rule 35: Federal prisoners can request a sentence reduction for providing substantial assistance to the government.
  • Habeas petition: Claim unlawful detention through a habeas corpus petition over legal errors.
  • COVID-19 release: Seek compassionate release under expanded criteria during COVID-19.


While reducing a federal sentence is difficult, options like retroactive law changes, compassionate release, executive clemency, and recidivism reduction programs offer hope. Consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to pursue strategies tailored to your situation. With persistence and a legal advocate on your side, you may find a path to an earlier release.

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