Sentence Reductions for Nonviolent Drug Offenders Under Amendment 821
The United States Sentencing Commission recently passed Amendment 821, which could allow thousands of federal drug offenders to get reduced prison sentences. This is a huge deal that can really help a lot of nonviolent drug offenders who got crazy long sentences under old mandatory minimum laws. Let me break down what Amendment 821 actually does and who it might help.
What Amendment 821 Changes
Amendment 821 makes 2 big modifications to how sentences get calculated under the guidelines:
- It reduces the impact of “status points” from someone’s criminal history
- It lets judges depart below the guidelines for certain drug offenders with little criminal history
First, it limits the effect of status points. These are extra criminal history points you can get if you committed the current offense while on probation, parole, supervised release, etc. Just 1 status point can add months or years to a sentence.
This change will help people who have long records only because of minor drug possession charges. Their status points stacked up quick even though they’re low level offenders.
Departing Below the Guidelines
The other big change is judges can now depart below the guidelines for some drug offenders with minimal records. There’s specific criteria they have to meet:
- 0-1 criminal history points
- No prior violent or sex offenses
- No weapons involved
- Not a leader in a drug trafficking organization
If defendants meet the requirements, judges can go under the guidelines. This is huge since before they could only do that in rare cases.
Who Can Benefit from Amendment 821
The main people who can get shorter sentences under Amendment 821 are nonviolent drug offenders with limited criminal histories, especially those serving long terms for low-level drug crimes. This includes:
- First time offenders
- People with minor prior records
- People serving mandatory minimums or guideline sentences for small drug amounts
- Defendants who played minor roles in conspiracies
The Sentencing Commission estimates around 11,500 currently incarcerated individuals may qualify for lower guideline ranges under Amendment 821.
Of course meeting the criteria doesn’t automatically guarantee a shorter sentence – judges still have discretion. But it opens the door.
How to Get a Sentence Reduction
For people currently serving federal time, here are the steps to try and get a sentence reduction under Amendment 821:
- File a motion for a sentencing reduction after November 1, 2023 when the amendment takes effect
- The judge reviews it and decides if you’re eligible
- If you are, the judge holds a resentencing hearing
- At the hearing, the judge decides whether to reduce your sentence
Even if you qualify, the judge can still deny a reduction or only lower it a small amount. But at least you have a chance now.
Definitely talk to a lawyer if you might be eligible! Experienced attorneys can help get your sentence lowered as much as possible under the new rules.
For people who haven’t been sentenced yet, Amendment 821 could result in a lower guideline range right from the start.
The Impact of Amendment 821
This change has been a long time coming. For decades, thousands of low-level drug offenders have gotten insanely long sentences under rigid mandatory minimum laws.
Amendment 821 finally gives judges more leeway to issue fair sentences that fit the crime. This will help reduce mass incarceration and bring more proportionality back into drug sentencing.
Of course violent criminals and kingpins won’t get any breaks. But a lot of young minor drug offenders will finally get a second chance after serving extremely punitive sentences.
While Amendment 821 doesn’t fix all the problems with federal drug laws, it’s a move in the right direction. More reforms are still needed to reduce over-reliance on mandatory minimums and make sentencing more just overall. But for now, Amendment 821 offers new hope and opportunities for nonviolent drug offenders serving unjustly harsh sentences.