Federal sentencing standards in drug cases set to change

When it comes to criminal defense work, it is important to be aware not only of the law and the criminal process itself, but also which judge is handling the case. While this is particularly important on appeal, it is also important at the trial level and even at sentencing. One example of this is in drug cases. As of right now, the state of the law regarding federal sentencing for drug crimes is in flux. At the federal level, there has been a shift to reducing prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

States have not fully caught up to the change, including Florida, where the change is being selectively applied by some judges while others are continuing to apply current sentencing standards. The new rules will become official in November. Until then, judges are free to follow them or not. Many judges have chosen to begin following the guidelines early. This has created a situation where the sentence convicted drug offenders receive depends more on the judge handling their case.

As it is, about 70 percent of drug trafficking offenders would be affected by the federal change, which is set out in the federal sentencing guidelines. On average, sentences are reduced by 11 months under the new rules. Once the new standards go into effect, judges will not have to follow the guidelines in every case, but must provide a basis for departing from them.

For a criminal defense attorney, knowing how to appeal to the judge handling the case is no small matter. While it isn't always possible to persuade a judge to issue of more favorable sentence for a convicted offender, it is important to know the areas where a judge may be willing to exercise leniency or discretion in favor of a defendant or convicted offender. A good criminal defense attorney will be aware of these opportunities and use them to advocate for a client.

Source: Tbo.com, "Some judges don't apply new lenient drug sentences," Elaine Silvestrini, April 27, 2014.

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