The policies of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding federal drug sentencing have gone through several major changes recently. Former Attorney General (AG) Eric Holder undertook a major overhaul several years ago, seeking to focus attention away from low-level drug offenses and onto major ones. In May 2017, however, AG Jeff Sessions rescinded Holder’s policy and issued a new memorandum directing federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” The memorandum does not specifically mention drugs and drug-related offenses, but that is where it is likely to have the most far-reaching effects.
Federal sentencing guidelines derive, in part, from a list of factors established by Congress in 1984 that courts must consider when imposing a sentence. These include “the nature…of the offense and the…characteristics of the defendant,” the effect of the sentence on society at large, the need to maintain consistent sentencing practices for similar offenses, and “the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
A “mandatory minimum” sentence gives courts no discretion to adjust the sentence downward. Such sentences became particularly widespread with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99-570 (Oct. 27, 1986). That law established lengthy minimum sentences for various drug offenses, such as 10 years for manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute one kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine. 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A)(i), (ii). According to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), 47.9 percent of all federal drug convictions in fiscal year 2015 involved an offense with a mandatory minimum penalty.