Pubdate: Mon, 13 Mar 2000
Source: Dayton Daily News (OH)
Author: Associated Press


First-time offenders primary beneficiaries

WASHINGTON--Average sentences for federal drug offenders declined during the
1990s, a private research study reported Sunday, as Congress, judges and
prosecutors took opportunities to soften the nation's tough drug sentences
for certain types of defendants.

The findings by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access
Clearinghouse (Trac) are somewhat surprising. The 1990s saw tougher drug
laws passed throughout the nation, federal drug-control spending rose by
nearly two-thirds to $16 billion a year in 1998, and federal drug
convictions climbed to an annual record of 21,571 in 1998.

Primary beneficiaries of the shorter sentences were nonviolent, first-time
offenders and criminals who saved the government the cost of a trial and
helped agents catch fellow lawbreakers in return for being allowed to plead
guilty to lesser charges.

"There are a number of reasons for the decline," Justice Department
spokesman John Russell said. "Enactment of the `safety valve' provision for
first-time, nonviolent drug offenders; the trend among drug defendants
toward more guilty pleas and fewer trials; and the increase in the number of
drug defendants providing substantial assistance" to investigators.

The decline in sentence length showed up in data collected by U.S. Courts,
the Justice Department and the U.S. Sentencing Commission, each of which
uses a slightly different categories for drug crimes.

The most extensive data set, from the U.S. Court system, found the decline
began in 1992, the final year of the Bush administration. A peak of 95.7
months occurred in 1991; from there, the average sentence dropped to 74.6
months in 1999.

Justice Department data showed the average sentence declined from 86 months
in 1992 to 67 in 1998, and the median declined from 48 months in 1992 to 46
months in 1998, Trac reported.

Sentencing Commission data showed the average dropped from 88.2 months in
1992 to 78 months in 1998, and the median from 60 months in 1991 to 56 in
1998, Trac reported.

Trac and federal officials cited a variety of reasons that might explain the
sentence-length decline, including a decline in serious drug use; more
effective police work that produced more guilty pleas and fewer trials; and
a feeling that tough mandatory minimum sentences, which began emerging in
the 1980s, had not left sufficient flexibility to deal with all defendants.

"Congress' changes in the law, combined with the key roles of federal
prosecutors and federal judges, suggest a pretty wide consensus that
previous sentences were too high for some defendants," Trac co-director
David Burnham said.

The percentage of federal drug offenders sentenced to less prison time than
recommended by U.S. Sentencing Guidelines rose from 33.7 percent in 1993 to
42.9 percent in 1998, Sentencing Commission figures showed.

Such so-called downward departures from the guidelines resulted from actions
by both judges and prosecutors.

The percentage of all federal drug convicts given lesser sentences by judges
rose from 6.2 percent in 1993 to 12.8 percent in 1998. In those cases,
judges were required to explain their belief that the sentencing guidelines
did not adequately cover the case.

Prosecutors can seek sentences shorter than the guidelines when they can
show the criminal substantially helped investigators. They sought leniency
for 27.5 percent of the defendants in 1993, rising to 30.1 percent in 1998.

Separately, the `safety valve' law, which took effect in 1995, allowed
judges to go even further: To hand out sentences shorter than the mandatory
minimum in the law to first-time, nonviolent offenders who didn't organize
the crime but did tell the government all they knew about it.

Bob Weiner, spokesman for White House drug policy chief Barry McCaffrey,
cited major progress against serious drug use. He noted that cocaine use,
which fueled a surge in violent crime in the 1980s, dropped by 70 percent
over the last 15 years.

Indeed, Trac found that by 1998 marijuana accounted for more federal drug
convictions than any other drug, one-third of the total. The other
two-thirds were divided among powder cocaine, 28 percent of the total; crack
cocaine, 17 percent; methamphetamine, 11 percent; heroin, 8 percent; and
other drugs, 3 percent.
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