Oct 15, 2017

The drugs that could get you the harshest prison sentences

Photo: Damian Dovarganes, Matt Rourke, Jae C. Hong, Arnulfo Franco, Aaron Favila / AP

Last week, two key criminal justice reform bills were announced, which have received various levels of bipartisan support. One bill by Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin lowers the minimum mandatory sentence for non-violent, drug-related crimes, while also enhancing penalties for several serious violent crimes.

Why it matters:

Almost identical bills were raised last year with a lot of momentum for criminal justice reform, but with the election and President Trump's tough-on-crime rhetoric, they died before making it to the floor.

The facts:

To arrive at a sentence for a drug-related crime, a judge will consider: the type of drug and how much was involved; whether it was for personal use or with the intent to sell; whether the person was involved in a drug dealing scheme or in manufacturing; whether there was violence involved or the person had any prior convictions; and finally, the state's specific drug crime laws. Here are the average sentences and suggested sentences given in 2016 for drug-related crimes by drug, according to the United States Sentencing Commission.

  • Percent of drug offenders: 33.6%
  • Average sentence: 7 years, 3 months
  • Average guideline sentence: 10 years, 1 month
  • Minimum sentence: 54% of meth trafficking offenders were eligible for a mandatory minimum penalty, but almost half of those were able to qualify for the safety valve, reducing that sentence.
  • Note: The number of meth offenders increased 26.4% from 2012.
Crack cocaine
  • Percent of drug offenders: 8.1%
  • Average sentence: 6 years, 7 months
  • Average guideline sentence: 8 years, 11 months
  • Minimum sentence: 46.6% of all offenders qualified for a mandatory minimum sentence, but just less than a third of those were able to reduce their sentence below the mandatory minimum.
  • Note: Crack cocaine offenders have decreased by more than half since 2012, and nearly all of them (97.5%) were American citizens, the highest percentage of citizen offenders for drug trafficking offenses.
Powder cocaine
  • Percent of drug offenders: 19.8%
  • Average sentence: 5 years, 10 months
  • Average guideline sentence: 7 years, 10 months
  • Minimum sentence: About 60% qualified for a mandatory minimum sentence, with almost 60% of those decreasing that sentence through safety valves.
  • Note: Puerto Rico was the top U.S. court district for powder cocaine offenders.
  • Percent of drug offenders: 14.4%
  • Average sentence: 5 years, 3 months
  • Average guideline sentence: 7 years, 7 months
  • Minimum sentence: 43.1% of heroin trafficking offenders qualified for a mandatory minimum sentence, almost half were able to reduce that sentence.
  • Note: Heroine offenders have increased by 29% since 2012, and almost 40% of them had little or no prior criminal history in 2016.
  • Percent of drug offenders: 2.8%
  • Average sentence: 3 years, 8 months
  • Average guideline sentence: 5 years, 9 months
  • Minimum sentence: No mandatory minimum.
  • Note: The number of offenders using Oxycodone decreased by almost half in 2 years. The Eastern District of Kentucky is the top district for these offenders.
  • Percent of drug offenders: 17.6%
  • Average sentence: 2 years, 2 months
  • Average guideline sentence: 2 years, 10 months
  • Minimum sentence: 27% of marijuana trafficking offenders were eligible for a mandatory minimum penalty, but almost 70% of those were able to reduce their sentence from the mandatory minimum.
  • Note: Marijuana has become decriminalized and even legalized in many states, and others impose small fines on offenders who are caught with marijuana, instead of jail time. However, some states, like Kentucky, still have strict laws against possession of marijuana. Fewer than half of marijuana offenders were American citizens.

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