DEA at Work
Overall Sentencing Trends in Drug Enforcement

Prison sentence for those convicted of federal drug crimes have declined significantly in the 1992/1998 period, according to data drawn from the Justice Department, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

According to data from the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys in the Justice Department, the average federal drug sentences went from 86 months in fiscal year 1992 to 67 months in 1998, a 22 percent decline. (See graph and table.) The counts reported by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission were similar, although the declines between 1992 and 1998 were somewhat less precipitous (table).

Median prison sentences -- half got more and half got less -- were also down. Because of their nature, median sentences moved less dramatically (graph and table) . However, the fact that both average and median drug sentences were moving in the same direction -- a fact agreed upon by all three government record keeping systems -- greatly strengthens the conclusion that there has been a systematic decline in drug sentences.

Although definitional differences means that the year-by-year counts were not the same, the data from the three independent institutions all showed real declines in the sentences being imposed on those convicted of federal drug crimes. (See "Comparing Case Processing Statistics" in August 1996 with a follow-up report in April 1998 of an interagency Data Reconciliation Working Group from the Department of Justice, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.)

The declines appeared to have begun during the last year or so of the Bush Administration and continued during the Clinton years (table). Because of the complexity of the criminal justice system, the reasons for the drop are not clear. Among the possible factors are the following:

Federal investigative agencies may now be referring a different mix of matters for prosecution than in the recent past. This could be a significant factor because the law establishes different sentences for different defendants, depending on the kinds and the amounts of drugs involved.

Federal prosecutors may be persuading more defendants to cooperate with them in related criminal investigations. This development might effect the overall sentencing patterns because under the guidelines defendants who provide useful information usually can reduce their sentences. According to Sentencing Commission reports, cases where lower sentences have been imposed ("downward departures") was 33% of all 1998 convictions, up from 21% in 1992. The rate for downward adjustments was even higher in 1998 for drug offenses where 43% received a reduction, usually because of giving "substantial assistance."

In 1994, Congress passed so-called safety valve legislation that gives federal judges more flexibility in the sentencing of low level drug offenders. By 1998, according to the 1998 Annual Report of the Sentencing (p. 40), nearly a quarter (24.7%) of drug offenders received a reduction in their sentence as a result of this "safety valve" provision.

Because certain aspects of these departures require the approval of the assistant U.S. Attorney, Justice Department enforcement policies also may be a factor in the declining drug sentences.

During the same period that the sentences were moving lower, the overall number of prosecutions dipped and then rose ending 1998 at a new high -- the largest volume of federal drug convictions in the nation’s history. See trends discussion and table.

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