Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Hope Lefeber Urges Public Comment on Drug Trafficking Sentencing Reductions

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Philadelphia criminal defense attorney reminds public of March 18 deadline to comment to the U.S. Sentencing Commission

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The proposed changes would amend only sentencing guidelines, not mandatory minimums, but they are a step in the right direction and need our support

Time is running out for the public to comment on proposals to reduce sentencing guidelines for federal drug trafficking offenses, and Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Hope C. Lefeber urges people to weigh in on the issue before the March 18 deadline.

“These revisions don’t go nearly far enough to reform draconian federal drug sentences, as they amend only sentencing guidelines while leaving statutory mandatory minimum sentences in place,” said Lefeber. “Still, the proposals are a step in the right direction and need our support.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Jan. 17 published proposed amendments to federal sentencing guidelines, which are voluntary recommendations judges may consult when deciding on a sentence. The proposals would lower by two levels the base offenses in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types in guideline §2D1.1, which governs drug trafficking cases. Drug traffickers make up about half of the federal prison population, which stood at about 215,500 in February 2014. Those federal prisoners join another 1.35 million people incarcerated in state prisons and 744,500 in local jails, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice. That adds up to 2.3 million Americans behind bars.

The proposed changes would reduce sentences for certain drug trafficking offenders by about 11 months, reducing the federal prison population by about 6,550 inmates by the fifth year after the change, the Commission said.

The Commission recommends the reductions to address the “growing crisis in federal prison populations and budgets.”

Across the United States, prison expenditures have nearly quadrupled since 1992, according to a 2012 study from the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based policy institute. In 2011, a typical inmate in Pennsylvania cost taxpayers $42,339 per year, according to the Institute. In New Jersey, the cost was even higher: $54,865 per year.
The proposal to reduce federal sentencing guidelines comes after a Commission study done in the wake of a similar two-level decrease in guideline levels for crack cocaine in 2007. That study found no difference in recidivism rates for offenders released early under the new guidelines compared to those who served their full sentence.

Still, even Commission members say the new guidelines are a modest step toward what must be a broader solution.

“The real solution rests with Congress,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, “and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”

After more than 30 years practicing law in a federal courtroom, Lefeber agrees.

“Statutory mandatory minimum sentences result in the greatest injustices,” said Lefeber. “The statutory minimums are mandatory – judges have no discretion and must impose them whether they want to or not. Congress must take action to reduce mandatory minimum penalties to be consistent with the severity of the offense.”

Written public comment should be received by the Commission no later than March 18, 2014. It may be sent by email to Public_Comment@ussc.gov or by mail to United States Sentencing Commission, One Columbus Circle, N.E., Suite 2-500, Washington, D.C. 20002-8002, Attention: Public Affairs.

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