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Federal Judge: Commission Must Change Drug Sentencing Guidelines

U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson of the federal trial court in the Eastern District of New York has, for the second time in two years, submitted a harsh criticism of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and its federal sentencing guidelines, especially as it applies to federal drug trafficking cases. The Sentencing Commission was created by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 in an attempt to alleviate sentencing disparities between federal courts across the nation.

Unfortunately, politics sometimes plays a larger role than it should when a commission of legal experts has been appointed to establish fair sentences for federal criminal offenses. Especially after the guidelines were amended in 1986 by the Anti Drug Abuse Act, judges across the country have criticized the guidelines for their formulaic approach and for the sometimes brutal sentences mandated for relatively low-level offenders.

Many federal judges including Judge Gleeson have felt compelled not to enforce what they believe are unduly harsh sentences dictated by the guidelines, as he did recently in a special memorandum in the case of the U.S. vs. Diaz.

Judge Gleeson described the defendant in that case as "a run-of-the-mill, low-level participant in a drug distribution offense...He was paid for his services, but had no proprietary interest in the drugs that were the subject of his crime."

For that one transaction, the guideline sentence is 8 to 10 years in federal prison.

Calling the guideline sentences for drug trafficking offenses "deeply and structurally flawed" and "excessively severe," Judge Gleeson said that, when Mr. Diaz's sentencing hearing comes up, he will essentially not take the recommendations of the federal sentencing guidelines into account. His reasoning?

"the Guidelines ranges for drug trafficking offenses are not based on empirical data, Commission expertise, or the actual culpability of defendants. If they were, they would be much less severe, and judges would respect them more. Instead, they are driven by drug type and quantity, which are poor proxies for culpability."

He went on to point out that so many federal judges do not follow the guidelines in drug cases that the sentences actually handed down by judges are, on average, 20 to 30 months lower than those dictated by the guidelines. If the Commission wants to change that, he said, it must "listen and act."

"We must never lose sight of the fact that real people are at the receiving end of these sentences," he concludes. "Incarceration is often necessary, but the unnecessarily punitive extra months and years the drug trafficking offense guideline advises us to dish out matter: children grow up; loved ones drift away; employment opportunities fade; parents die."