On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will no longer charge certain nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that carry lengthy mandatory prison sentences. There are many caveats in the announcement, but it is indicative of a larger policy drive toward lessening the punitive burden for low-level drug offenses–and decreasing the prison population.
The Attorney General directed the nation’s 94 U.S. Attorneys–including in the Eastern District of Virginia and Washington, D.C.–to take a closer look at the appropriateness of the specific federal charge alleged in each case and to consider whether state and local authorities should prosecute the case instead. The charging directive is important because the specific federal charge will usually dictate the sentencing outcome.
Though the sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, a federal judge will usually follow the guidelines; therefore a defendant’s sentence is largely determined by the specific charge rather than the judge’s discretion. Thus, if the U.S. Attorney alleges a lower-level offense, the defendant will likely receive less jail time–which is the point of the new policy.
Each case stands on its own, however. The Attorney General’s directive only applies to federal cases, so prosecution under the Virginia Code is not affected. And not every drug offense will qualify for the kinder, gentler DOJ approach. Only time will indicate the long-term impact of this policy announcement, but it is part of an ongoing liberalization of the justice system’s treatment of certain drug offenses.
Contact an attorney to discuss these issues or for specific legal advice. You can contact Law Office of Samuel C. Samuel C. Moorehere.