Sentencing Guidelines for Federal Drug Charges

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The government has established a set of rules regarding the sentencing of individuals and organizations in the US Federal Court System when they have been arrested and convicted for Class A (serious) misdemeanors and felonies.  These rules are known as the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  These guidelines were created by the US Sentencing Commission as a result of passing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.  The primary goal or intent of the act was to alleviate any disparities that existed in the current sentencing system.

Basic Factors Involved

According to the current federal guidelines, there are two factors that determine sentencing:

  • •    Behavior or conduct associated with the crime – a.k.a. the “offense conduct,” this also helps to determine the level of the offense committed
  • •    Criminal history of the defendant – a.k.a. the “criminal history category”

The manual also includes a Sentencing Table which shows how these two factors are related.  The table also specifies a range of sentencing expressed in monthly increments which the court uses in the defendant’s sentencing.

A Brief Word About Sentencing Adjustments

Whenever any adjustments are made to the length of sentencing, it is either a decrease or an increase in the amount of time that the defendant must serve.  They are described as Decrease in amount of time to be served and increase in the amount of time to be served.  In addition to the US Sentencing Guidelines, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure state that a motion for the decrease of time to be served be filed by the prosecution.  Conversely, there are several adjustments that are victim-related which can increase the amount of time that the defendant must serve.

Penalties And Sentencing For Drug-Related Offenses

The Federal Government

According to legislative attorney Brian T. Yeh, author of the Congressional Research Service document entitled “Drug Offenses:  Maximum Fines and Terms of Imprisonment for Violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act and Related Laws,” there is information regarding the following drug-related felonies:

  • •    Controlled substance violations (and other activity/crimes)
  • •    Laundering money from controlled substance violations
  • •    Possession (1st, 2nd, and 3rd offense as well as simple possession)
  • •    Racketeering
  • •    Smuggling
  • •    Tax offenses
  • •    Trafficking (exportation, importation, manufacturing, possession with intent to distribute, and unlawful distribution of illegal controlled substances)

Additionally, the document lists the maximum fines and penalties as well as prison terms that can be imposed for the conviction of these offenses.

Definition Of Controlled Substances

Whenever the distribution and use of a drug is governed by specific federal and state laws, it typically means that they have been classified as controlled substances.  Additionally, these substances are categorized according to their “schedule” (level) under federal and state statutes.  Marijuana is an example of a Schedule I substance while an example of a Schedule V substance would be a low level codeine cough medicine.

Drug Penalties And Sentencing

According to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, federal drug laws include maximum and minimum sentencing specifications.  The length of the sentencing for each drug and the type of offense that has been committed is determined by the amount and type of drug involved as well as the following three factors:

  • •    Defendant’s criminal history
  • •    If any individuals were harmed during the commission of the crime
  • •    Whether or not the crime involved the use of weapons

When a person is imprisoned for the commission of a drug-related crime, the minimum sentence involved can range between 5 and 10 years.  In most instances, individuals are sentenced for the manufacture, possession, or trafficking of controlled substances.  Additionally, a charge of possession with an intent to distribute carries a stiffer penalty than a charge of simple possession.


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