Federal Judge Defies Sentencing Scheme That Treats Low-Level Drug Offenders Like Kingpins

A tough-on-crime prosecutor turned federal judge who last year blasted prosecutors’ abuse of draconian mandatory minimum sentences has now issued a damning judicial indictment of another aspect of the harsh U.S. drug sentencing scheme.

In an opinion declining to rely upon federal drug sentence guidelines, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson calls the guidelines for drug crimes “deeply and structurally flawed,” subjecting “low-level offenders” to “prison terms more suitable for a drug boss.”

Over twenty-five years of application experience have demonstrated the perverse outcomes generated by the Guidelines ranges for drug trafficking offenses. … [S]entencing judges have routinely departed from these Guidelines, which have never been the “heartlands” that the original Commission aspired to create. Despite these consistent departures, federal drug sentencing has contributed to the national crisis of mass incarceration.

Gleeson, who in 1992 led the team of prosecutors that sent John J. Gotti to life in prison, issued an opinion last May blasting federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders that “distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences.” Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, he lamented, “An addict who is paid $300 to stand at the entrance to a pier and watch for the police while a boatload of cocaine is offloaded” … “qualifies for kingpin treatment”. In this week’s opinion, he points out that even those who manage to escape mandatory minimum sentences don’t fare much better under the alternative federal sentencing scheme for drug crimes, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.


Defendant Ysidro Diaz, who was a “run-of-the-mill, low-level participant in a drug distribution offense,” narrowly escaped a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years because he satisfied all five requirements for “safety valve relief.” Instead, Gleeson was tasked with looking to U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which recommended 8–10 years in prison, even though Diaz had no prior convictions.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that judges could no longer be obligated to follow these guidelines, Gleeson points out that they have nonetheless contributed to exponential increases in sentence length and an accompanying spike in federal incarceration for drug crimes:

Perhaps the best indication that the Guidelines ranges for drug trafficking offenses are excessively severe is the dramatic impact they have had on the federal prison population despite the fact that judges so frequently sentence well below them. […]

In less than a decade, from 1985 to 1991, the length of federal drug trafficking sentences increased by over two-and-a-half times. Sentences for drug trafficking were “elevated above almost every serious crime except murder.” The increase in sentence length for drug offenders “was the single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”

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.

Of course, it’s not just long sentences that have overwhelmed federal prisons with drug offenders. Criminalization of nonviolent drug offenses, and frequent prosecution of offenders are just as fundamental. But disproportionate punishment implicates fundamental due process principles and has even been found to violate the Eighth Amendment, which is probably why Gleeson is one of several federal judges who have been uncharacteristically vocal in pleading with both prosecutors and lawmakers for immediate sentencing reform.

(HT Sentencing Law and Policy)