Drug Violations Law

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Drug Charges: Potential Sentences

Those convicted of possessing, distributing, trafficking or selling illegal drugs in the United States face a wide array of penalties, and part of the mandatory sentencing can depend on where they were arrested. The recreational use of marijuana is now legal in several states, but the penalties for possessing small quantities of the drug remain severe in many parts of the country.

Half of all federal prisoners are serving drug-related sentences, and the number of those incarcerated on drug charges in state prisons has increased tenfold since 1980. A great many of these prisoners are serving sentences handed down under federal or state mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Mandatory minimums are designed to deter drug use and severely punish those who distribute and sell drugs. Nonviolent drug offenders who could benefit from sobriety programs may be treated more sympathetically by special drug courts.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in the United States in 1951 by the Boggs Act. In response to an epidemic of crack cocaine use and a wave of violent crime in cities across the country, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. This law increased the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes significantly and led to a surge in the number of federal prisoners. Lawmakers reacted to criticism of the 1986 law by introducing a safety valve in 1994 that softens sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders. Prosecutors often use the possibility of a mandatory minimum sentence to encourage those facing drug charges to accept a plea arrangement or cooperate with law enforcement, and studies have found that criminal suspects who are facing mandatory periods of incarceration are about twice as likely to provide assistance to the government.

States also have mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses, and these laws have sometimes taken an even harsher position than the federal government. New York introduced mandatory minimums of between 15 years and life for possession of 4 or more ounces of some drugs in 1973. Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana can result in a five-year prison sentence under Florida’s current sentencing laws.

United States v. Booker

In 2005, a provision of the federal sentencing statute was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In United States v. Booker, the nation’s highest court ruled that federal district judges can only enhance sentences based on admissions made by defendants and facts that have been established beyond any reasonable doubt. Freddie Joe Booker appealed a 30-year sentence for drug possession that had been enhanced based on facts that were determined by the judge but not admitted to by the defendant or established in court. The Supreme Court ruled that Booker’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial had been violated. The Booker ruling also allows federal appeals judges to review district court sentences and modify them when the punishment handed down is considered to be unreasonable.

Current Drug Penalties

The penalties for simple possession vary widely across the country. Several jurisdictions have decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana and issue offender’s tickets instead of arresting them, but being found with any amount of the drug in Arizona results in a felony charge. Drug use is increasingly being viewed by lawmakers as a public health as well as criminal issue. Special drug courts have been introduced that encourage nonviolent offenders to tackle their substance abuse problems. However, there are factors that can lead to far more severe drug sentences. Carrying a gun while dealing drugs leads to harsher sentences under federal law and in many states, and selling illegal drugs to a minor or near a school will also result in tougher penalties.

Those convicted of offenses carrying drug mandatory minimum penalties serve sentences that are more than double that of those handed down to offenders not convicted on drug charges with mandatory penalties, but those who qualify for relief receive significantly lower sentences. Relief is granted to about half of the offenders facing federal minimum drug sentences. However, offenders who receive relief still serve sentences one-and-a-half times longer than those handed down in drug cases where mandatory minimum sentences do not apply. In 2016, almost three-quarters of the federal prisoners who are serving time for drug offenses were sentenced under mandatory sentencing laws. However, the number of mandatory sentences handed down has decreased in recent years, and less than half of the drug offenders sentenced in federal courts in 2016 were convicted of a crime carrying a mandatory minimum sentence. The mandatory sentences were generally applied in cases involving weapons or violence and when other triggering factors were present.

Special Drug Courts

Eligible individuals with substance abuse problems may be sent to drug court instead of being processed through the criminal justice system. The goal of drug courts is to give those who could benefit from help an opportunity to avoid harsh penalties and get their lives back on track. The eligibility requirements for drug court are set by state and local guidelines. Violent offenders are usually excluded, and consent may be required before a case is transferred to drug court when a victim is involved. Offenders who are sent to drug court will generally be expected to:

  • Enter intensive treatment and sobriety programs
  • Agree to regular toxicology testing
  • Meet certain obligations to the court, society, themselves and their families
  • Appear in court regularly so that judges can monitor their progress

Drug courts are usually managed by a non-adversarial team made up of judges, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, substance abuse professionals and social workers. More than 3,000 have been established across the country as of 2015.