President Obama recently made headlines for commuting the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders. That represents less than one half of one percent of the total number of drug offenders in federal prison. During the ceremony Obama said, “in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.”
However, a little known policy change may end up releasing nearly 46,000 federal offenders before their sentences are complete. The Marshall Project reports the change known as “drugs minus two,” was an amendment to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s guidelines adopted last year. “Federal drug sentences are computed with a dizzying arithmetic. Judges assign the defendant an ‘offense level’ based on the quantity of drugs sold. The judge then places that person in a ‘criminal history category,’ based on his criminal record, and plugs both data points into a table to arrive at a final sentence… This year’s ‘drugs minus two’ amendment lowers all drug crimes by another two offense levels. So far, the average sentencing reductions are modest: just under two years.”
Even with this policy change, not everyone will be eligible for a sentence reduction, “including those serving mandatory minimum sentences and those convicted of a ‘third strike’ — even if all three strikes were nonviolent drug convictions.”
One of the first people to be released early under this new policy was David Mosby. In 1991, Mosby was sentenced to 40 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. He began using methamphetamines to stay awake during his night shift, and started selling to fund his habit. With good time credit, he was initially slated to a 2025 release date. The new “drugs minus two” policy reduced 10 years off his sentence, and Mosby was released in March of this year.
An appellate judge reviewing Mosby’s case wrote, “Under the sentencing guidelines scheme now in vogue, a judge can exercise little, if any, judgment on these matters.” Adding, “While I am obligated to affirm the sentences, I need not and will not put my stamp of approval upon them. These sentences defy reason, but as I have already noted–such is our system.”
I could not say it any better, “These sentences defy reason”! These sentences determined by charts not judicial discretion date back to 1984 when the U.S. Sentencing Commission designed tables to help eliminate sentencing disparities that were then commonplace. Not only did sentences become more uniform, the prison population boomed. Even with the “drugs minus two” policy, the Drug War will continue to be waged, and non-violent offenders will still be incarcerated for decades. The only real way to reduce the prison population is to end the insane War on Drugs, and get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.