Are the federal sentencing guidelines for drug dealing unduly harsh?

March 24

An important debate is brewing among two distinguished federal district judges over whether the federal Sentencing Guidelines for drug dealing are unduly harsh.  Judge James Browning of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico recently released this 73-page opinion on the subject.  Here is the introduction to this remarkable opinion:

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ Sentencing Memorandum and Motion for a Downward Variance, filed March 21, 2013 (Doc. 45)(“Sentencing Memorandum”). The Court held a sentencing hearing on January 6, 2014. The primary issues are: (i) whether the Court will vary downward to a sentence of 15 months to reflect Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ comparatively minimal involvement in an overall drug conspiracy; (ii) whether the Court should vary from the advisory guideline range because of a substantive disagreement, under Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007), with the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking violations, as did the Honorable John Gleeson, District Judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in United States v. Diaz, No. 11-CR-00821-2, 2013 WL 322243 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2013); and (iii) whether the Court should consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing. The Court will vary downward, but not as much as Reyes requests: it will vary to a sentence of 30 months, which the Court concludes best reflects the factors that Congress laid out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The Court concludes that Judge Gleeson’s criticisms of the Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking lack a sound basis.  Accordingly, the Court will not adopt his substantive disagreement under Kimbrough v. United States with the Commission’s Guideline for drug trafficking offenses. The Court varies for reasons tied to the factors in § 3553(a) and to Reyes’ individual circumstances, and not because of a substantive disagreement with the Commission’s ranges for drug trafficking. Finally, the Court will not consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing, because the factors in § 3553(a) do not clearly permit the Court to consider costs, and because those concerned about the fiscal implications of criminal justice policy should petition the other branches of government and should not ask the Court to consider such implications in sentencing an individual defendant.

Browning’s opinion is filled with a very interesting discussion of why Congress has enacted tough penalties for drug dealing.  And he is responding to an equally interesting opinion by Judge John Gleeson, found here, which criticizes those penalties.  I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read the contending positions.  The Washington Post recently editorialized on the subject, and the views of these two judges usefully frame the debate.

I tend to think that the federal sentencing guidelines, in general, are not too harsh, although I am skeptical of sweeping statutory mandatory minimum sentences.  But the specific subject of drug trafficking penalties clearly needs further study, so that a resolution is based on sound data rather than predispositions.  My own predisposition, based on sentencing many drug offenders, is that the sentencing guidelines could do a better job of distinguishing between the dangers posed by different kinds of drugs.  Meth dealers deserve tough federal sentences, probably including some mandatory minimum sentences.  Meth is simply so destructive of basic human personality that its trafficking should be punished harshly.  But some of the tough, federal penalties for trafficking in, for example, marijuana may be in need of downward revision.

Paul G. Cassell teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and crime victims' rights at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.
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Will Baude | March 24