In a remarkable new report just released from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, we now have more evidence showing that recidivism rates do not increase for those who receive lighter drug sentences. After decades of an experiment in mass incarceration for drug offenses in the United States, this report provides further support for the notion that draconian sentences for drug offenders is not the answer to the so-called “war on drugs.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission and Its Mission

Unless you are heavily involved in the federal criminal justice system, you may not know about the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Created by Congress in 1984, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is an independent agency inside the U.S. government’s judicial branch. Its core mission is to:

  • Establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts regarding the appropriate form and severity of penalties for those convicted of federal crimes.
  • Advise and assist the federal legislative and executive branches in the development of effective crime policy; and
  • Research and report on myriad federal crime and sentencing issues, serving as a helpful, fact-based resource for Congress, the executive branch, the courts, criminal justice practitioners, the academic community, and the public.

Of course, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is best known for creating the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which are used as guidance in every federal sentence handed down in the country. The Guidelines are the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s most important contribution to its mission to establish federal court sentencing policy and practice.

With regard to its mission to analyze sentencing issues, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has just released a new report, as of March 28, 2018, that provides some fascinating information on recidivism among those convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s March 2018 Recidivism Findings

Titled the “Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment,” the report just released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission provides information on how shorter sentences for crack cocaine offenders impacted recidivism. The good news – there was no impact at all.

U.S. Sentencing Commission

U.S. Sentencing Commission

By way of background, the first version of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended far more severe sentences for those convicted of a crack cocaine offense than those convicted of a powder cocaine offense. Given that the majority of crack cocaine users were black, and the majority of powder cocaine users were white (even though the rate of cocaine use among white and black Americans was the same), the Guidelines resulted in unfairly severe criminal sentences for black Americans. At the time these statistics came to light, there was no other reasonable conclusion but that treating crack and powder cocaine differently was based in racism.

In order to remedy those discriminatory effects, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, at the behest of Congress, began to reduce the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine. One effort to reduce the disparity was to allow sentence reductions for crack cocaine offenders after the passage of the 2011 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA).

As a result of the change in policy, the U.S. Sentencing Commission studied the difference between those crack cocaine offenders who received a reduced sentence (approximately a 30-month reduction) and those who served their full sentence. The concern was that shorter sentences would result in those offenders returning to crime in higher numbers, compared to those who served a longer sentence. Thus, the Commission sought to answer the question: “Did the reduced sentences for the FSA Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?” Again, the good news is that the overall answer is “No.”

The key findings of the study were as follows:

  • The recidivism rates between offenders released early (due to retroactive application of the FSA) and those who served their full sentences were virtually identical. Over a three-year period, both groups had a recidivism rate of 37.9 percent.
  • Of those people who did “recidivate” (i.e., commit further crime), the most serious type of offense was violating a court supervision rule, which is not a very serious crime.
  • The median time it took for the recidivists to re-offend was approximately a year and 2 months for both groups.

Making Sense of the Numbers

Overall, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s report is good news for sentencing advocates who believe that lengthy sentences for drug offenders is bad policy. Indeed, sentences that were over 2 years shorter had no effect on recidivism rates. Without extrapolating too much from the data, it would be reasonable to conclude that the relative length of a sentence may have limited impact on recidivism. While it is, of course, important to make sure that a criminal sentence fits the severity of the crime, decades-long sentences for drug offenders does not seem to be the way to stop drug offenses or decrease recidivism. Obviously, other factors are at play in recidivism - economics being one of the biggest drivers of upticks in crime in modern societies.

Hopefully, more data like the recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission will help all those facing incredibly long federal sentences, and lead to a more rehabilitation-focused criminal sentencing structure in the U.S.

Brandon Sample, Esq., is a dedicated sentencing advocate who practices in federal courts throughout the United States. If you have a sentencing matter that requires careful attention, request a free consultation with Brandon today.

Click on this link to see the U.S. Sentencing Commission's report

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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