Criminal sentencing reforms and downward departures

Earlier this week, we introduced the sentencing reforms for convictions related to crack cocaine. These reforms of the sentencing guidelines reduced the disparity between the sentencing guidelines for powder cocaine and crack cocaine. While there is still a disparity, the sentencing guidelines for the distribution of crack cocaine were reduced to be much more in line with those for the distribution of powder cocaine. As we mentioned previously, the Supreme Court will soon examine the retroactive effect of this reform as the federal circuit courts of appeals are currently split on the issue.

The overarching issue of whether the sentencing reforms should be given retroactive effect is fairly clear, but it can become considerably more complicated in specific cases. In one recent case, the suspect was convicted on drug charges allegedly related to crack cocaine. During the initial sentencing, the court considered several factors.

The suspect’s criminal history and the amount of crack cocaine involved called for a sentence of between 30 years and life. But because the suspect had mental health issues, his sentence category was reduced by three levels, allowing for a minimum sentence of just over 24 years, which was the sentence he initially received.

Subsequently, the suspect requested that his sentence be reduced based on the retroactive effect of the amended crack guidelines. The trial court refused to reduce the sentence reasoning that the length of the sentence for his initial category, before the reduction for mental health issues, was not reduced by the reforms. But the court of appeals disagreed with the trial court and instead determined that his sentence was based on the lower category. The sentence range for the lower category was reduced by the reforms. This resulted in a reduction of about three years in the minimum sentence allowable.

The law is not settled regarding the retroactive effect of the crack cocaine sentencing reforms. The issues involved are often complicated and require the assistance of a criminal attorney who is ready to break new ground in fighting for your rights.

Source: American Bar Association, “Second Circuit Finds Appellant, Previously Sentenced for Crack Cocaine Offense, is Eligible for Sentence Reduction Under Revised Sentencing Guidelines; Federal Circuits are Split,” Elyse Diamond Moskowitz,