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Are mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses going away?

Under federal and New Jersey state law, a conviction for certain drug offenses can result in some of the most serious punishments in the criminal justice system, matching the retribution afforded to weapons or violent crimes. Such punishments may involve fines, mandatory jail time, driver’s license suspension and even property seizure. 

Yet does this approach to drug crimes make sense? Some federal lawmakers are confronting this very question.  At a recent bipartisan news conference, several federal lawmakers recently proposed criminal justice reforms that would reduce the prison sentences handed out to nonviolent drug offenders. 

The proposed reforms would also allow judges to exercise greater discretion when sentencing, instead of being bound in many situations by federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. For example, the three strikes rule often translates into a life sentence for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders. The new proposals would eliminate that requirement, subject to certain exceptions. There is also a retroactive proposal: Instead of prison time, the new approach would offer sentence reductions by up to 25 percent to inmates deemed to be at a low risk of recidivism and who agreed to participate in rehabilitation programs. 

There could be a practical incentive behind the proposed legislation, as the number of nonviolent drug offenders in the nation’s prisons has grown from under 25,000 to over 200,000 since 1980. As a law firm that focuses on criminal defense, we see the proposal as a potential opportunity for strategic considerations, perhaps in the form of a plea bargain or in other negotiations with prosecutors. A lesser penalty might even be obtainable.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Senators reach deal to reduce prison time for some nonviolent drug offenders,” Oct. 1, 2015

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