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Federal Drug Crime Sentencing Guidelines Changed This Month

The way Colorado defendants charged with federal drug crimes are sentenced is changing. Last summer, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. The act's primary purpose was to equalize punishment for crimes involving of crack cocaine with crimes involving powder cocaine. Congress gave the U.S. Sentencing Commission 5 years to implement new guidelines in accordance with the act. This month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued temporary guidelines to implement the Fair Sentencing Act. The temporary changes may become permanent when the commission meets next May.

When a defendant is convicted in federal court, judges calculate sentences based on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual. Although the sentencing guidelines are considered advisory and not mandatory, most judges closely follow the guidelines when assigning a defendant's sentence in drug cases.

In the past, federal sentences have been much more severe in crack cocaine cases when compared to powder cocaine cases. Advocates of the change in sentencing believed this had a disproportionately harsh impact on some racial groups who dealt in crack cocaine more often than powder cocaine.

The old guidelines required a five-year mandatory minimum sentence if a defendant had five grams or more of crack cocaine. The old guidelines also triggered a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence when a defendant had 50 grams or more of crack. The new guidelines increase the amount required for the five-year mandatory minimum sentence from five grams to 28 grams, and the amount required for the ten-year sentence from 50 grams to 280 grams.

While the new guidelines do reduce the sentencing ranges for possession charges, they will also increase sentences in some cases. Defendants who are found to be leaders in drug selling organizations and defendants who coerce or intimidate others to deal in drugs will have additional time added to their sentences.

Source: Denver Post: Federal sentencing guidelines change today for some drug crimes; Felisa Cardona, 11/1/2010

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