New federal sentencing guidelines go into effect today, raising or reducing the recommended time that drug offenders spend in prison depending on the quantity of drugs involved or the role the defendant played in the crime, the Denver Post reports. Last week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to implement temporarily changes Congress made to the guidelines when the Fair Sentencing Act was passed into law over the summer. The advisory guidelines are used by federal judges to give a range of possible sentences in criminal cases.
The Fair Sentencing Act is intended to equalize sentencing in cases involving crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Federal sentences have been much stiffer in crack-cocaine cases. Advocates argued that that punished African-American defendants, who often dealt in crack cocaine more than powder, more harshly than white suburban users of powder cocaine. In Colorado, U.S. Attorney John Walsh said, “The impact this will have on our cases as a group is less than it would be in those jurisdictions where they are bringing smaller crack cases,” Walsh said. “Our focus has always been on major drug trafficking. While they have an impact, we don’t think they are going to have a dramatic impact.” While the mandatory-minimum changes may have a fairer result for some defendants, other changes to the drug sentencing guidelines could mean longer prison time for others. The new guidelines add several months of prison time for “aggravating factors” for leaders of drug rings who coerce or intimidate a girlfriend or elderly family member to deal drugs. Raymond Moore, Colorado’s federal public defender, called the guideline changes a “political compromise” that doesn’t go far enough to achieve fairness in sentencing.