“The methamphetamine offense Guidelines are excessive because they subject all defendants to harsh treatment, regardless of their role in the offense,” U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett wrote in a sentencing decision last week. He called the guidelines set out by the U.S. Sentencing Commission “fundamentally flawed,” hinging on the quantity of drugs, regardless of much more relevant factors, and subjecting a range of players from managers to users to inappropriately similar and long sentences.
In his ruling, Bennett noted that policy disagreement with the sentencing guidelines has been accepted in a series of other cases as a valid reason for departing from the formula for calculating drug sentences. He cites several other federal judges who have already expressed vehement disagreement with the existing sentencing scheme, including Judge John Gleeson, who has been particularly vocal in his opposition.
In an opinion noting the “perverse outcomes generated by the Guidelines,” Gleeson lamented: “We must never lose sight of the fact that real people are at the receiving end of these sentences. Incarceration is often necessary, but the unnecessarily punitive extra months and years the drug trafficking offense guideline advises us to dish out matter: children grow up; loved ones drift away; employment opportunities fade; parents die.”
Unlike mandatory minimum sentences, federal Guidelines are not absolute dictates about how a judge must penalize the defendant. They provide a range of sentences, and formulas for determining how best to sentence defendants. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 held that the Guidelines were not mandatory, allowing judges like Gleeson and Bennett to depart from suggested sentencing ranges. But most judges do follow the guidelines, and Gleeson notes that their imposition has had a “dramatic impact they have had on the federal prison population despite the fact that judges so frequently sentence well below them.” In fact a new U.S. Supreme Court decision issued Monday — after Bennett’s most recent opinion — reiterated that sentencing decisions must be “anchored by the Guidelines,” and a judge’s failure to calculate a sentence under the Guidelines constitutes procedural error.
In his ruling last week, Bennett did calculate and consider the Guidelines, but ultimately rejects their recommendations, lamenting that they are not the result of empirical research, but rather a knee-jerk to the death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986, and the subsequent passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the draconian mandatory minimum sentences that exist today. Those mandatory minimum sentences were the basis for the U.S. Sentencing Commission also adjusting sentencing guidelines upward. Quoting another federal judge who recently blasted these guidelines, Bennett writes, “It jettisoned its data entirely and made the quantity-based sentences in the ADAA proportionately applicable to every drug trafficking offense.”
As Bennett, Gleeson, and others have noted, these quantity-based measures treat low-level offenders like kingpins, and result in draconian sentences that, in conjunction with excessive criminalization and prosecution of nonviolent drug offenses, overwhelm both our court dockets and our prisons with people who would benefit from rehabilitation and treatment.