Sentencing in Drug Crimes Is Subject to Many Factors

After years of controversy about mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the federal government appears ready to take a stance. The cost of overcrowded prisons and a sense of fairness likely compelled U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to call for sentencing reform.

Massachusetts’ own state laws regarding mandatory minimums, the subject of similar criticism and reconsideration, were relaxed in 2012. As the Boston Globe reported in 2013, drug offenders now constitute only 16 percent of the prison population, down 22 percent from 2011.

The debate focuses on drug arrests and arbitrary sentencing practices. For example, possession of a certain amount of crack cocaine is treated far more harshly than larger amounts of powdered cocaine. Now, a more nuanced approach allows judges to consider these variables:

  • Distribution. Did the defendant possess the drug for personal use only or with the intent to sell it to others?
  • Mitigating factors. Was a defendant who played a small role in the crime suffering from a mental illness that may have affected the person’s behavior?
  • Aggravating factors. Were victims vulnerable because of their age or mental ability? Was particular cruelty involved? Did the accused use a position of authority to commit the crime?

First-time offenders are also treated less harshly in the courts than those facing second or subsequent arrests for a drug-related crime. Also, heroin and other highly addictive drugs are categorized as class A, while cocaine is class B, prescription painkillers are class C, marijuana is class D and less powerful prescription painkillers are class E, and this can affect sentencing. Therefore, even a first offense for heroin can result in a two-year prison sentence.

A Massachusetts drug offense attorney can help you if you were arrested for a drug crime or if you suspect you are being investigated.