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Major Overhaul of US Sentencing Guidelines Takes Effect
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Reforms in the US Sentencing Guidelines come into force, marking the first substantial revision in years.

After Congress opted not to veto the proposed amendments from the US Sentencing Commission, sweeping changes to the US Sentencing Guidelines will become effective on Wednesday. This significant overhaul addresses various aspects of the guidelines, encompassing sentencing reductions, criminal history points, career offender enhancements, firearms offenses, and counterfeit drug cases. The amendments have far-reaching implications for defendants, serving as the foundational reference point for federal judges in determining sentences.

Background: A Long-Awaited Revision


The US Sentencing Guidelines had remained largely unchanged for a considerable period due to the Commission’s lack of a quorum between January 2019 and August 2022. Consequently, this revision represents a substantial and long-overdue transformation of the guidelines.

Amendment 821: Altering the Landscape of Criminal History

One of the most consequential amendments, labeled Amendment 821, focuses on the impact of a defendant’s criminal history. This amendment has the potential to significantly reduce sentences for numerous defendants. Part A of Amendment 821 reduces the number of criminal history points assigned to a defendant already under a “criminal justice sentence,” encompassing probation, parole, supervised release, imprisonment, work release, or escape status.

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Previously, section 4A1.1(d) added two criminal history points if the defendant was under a criminal justice sentence when the offense occurred. Now, the provision, redesignated as section 4A1.1(e), imposes only one additional criminal history point and applies exclusively to offenders with more extensive criminal histories. Part B of the amendment allows for a two-level reduction from the offense level for defendants with no criminal history points, provided certain aggravating factors are not present.

Practical Implications: A Mixed Bag

While this two-point reduction may not substantially change the approach of many judges who already consider a lack of prior convictions as a mitigating factor, it could prove beneficial in cases where judges adhere more strictly to the guidelines. However, there are concerns that this change might lead judges to overlook the broader context of a defendant’s character after the initial guidelines calculation is completed.

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Part C of Amendment 821 introduces a downward departure for defendants who received criminal history points from a sentence for the possession of marijuana for personal use. Even a one-level reduction can have a substantial impact, potentially altering a defendant’s sentencing range by months or even years. Notably, the changes in Parts A and B are retroactive, with their application set for February 1, 2024. This allows currently incarcerated individuals to request sentence modifications, but any retroactive relief will not take effect until this date.

Enhancing Reentry and Reducing Sentences

The delay in the retroactive application of these amendments aims to ensure that individuals who might be released have the opportunity to participate in reentry programs and transitional services to facilitate their successful reintegration into society. The US Sentencing Commission estimates that over 11,000 incarcerated individuals will have a lower sentencing range under Part A, potentially leading to an average sentence reduction of 11.7%, while more than 7,000 incarcerated individuals will become eligible for a sentencing reduction under Part B, with an average potential reduction of 17.6%.

Conforming with the First Step Act

Another substantial amendment aligns the guidelines with the First Step Act of 2018. Amendment No. 814 revises section 1B1.13, the Commission’s “Compassionate Release” policy statement, granting authorization to defendants to file a motion for early release, not just wardens. Moreover, it significantly expands the criteria for “extraordinary and compelling reasons” justifying sentence reduction.

The expanded criteria encompass new subcategories of medical circumstances not previously addressed, along with special consideration for individuals who have been victims of sexual assault by Bureau of Prisons personnel. Additionally, it resolves a circuit split regarding whether non-retroactive changes in the law can be considered extraordinary and compelling circumstances. Now, a defendant who has served at least ten years of an unusually lengthy sentence can file a motion for a sentence reduction if a change in the law creates a substantial disparity between the current sentence and what would have been imposed at the time of the motion.

These changes have significant implications for defendants facing disproportionately long sentences, aligning the legal system with evolving perspectives on justice.

For More Information

The full details of these amendments are accessible on the US Sentencing Commission’s website, offering comprehensive insight into the extensive reforms now in effect.

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