Judge Calls for Overhaul of Drug Guidelines

NEW YORK, Jan 30 (Reuters) – A federal judge in Brooklyn has called for reforms to the sentencing guidelines for drug-trafficking offenses, condemning the current system as “deeply and structurally flawed.” U.S. District Judge John Gleeson outlined his opposition to the drug-trafficking guidelines, which are promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in a 45-page memorandum dated Monday. He said they aren’t based on empirical data, U.S. Sentencing Commission expertise or defendants’ actual culpability. “If they were, they would be much less severe, and judges would respect them more. Instead, they are driven by drug type and quantity, which are poor proxies for culpability,” he wrote. The memorandum was filed in advance of the March 8 sentencing of Ysidro Diaz, 37, who is charged with conspiring to deliver one kilogram of heroin. Diaz, described in the memorandum as a “run-of-the-mill, low-level participant” in a drug organization, could face 8-10 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, Gleeson wrote. The judge suggested that the guidelines be overhauled to “de-link” them from the quantity of drugs in question and rather than to the actions of the defendant. Since that could be a lengthy process, he also recommended that the commission cut its guideline ranges by one-third in the interim. Judges across the country have called on the commission for almost two decades to reduce the range of drug-trafficking sentences, Gleeson said in the memo. The guidelines are also “a major contributor” to rising federal prison populations, he wrote, pointing out that 50 percent of federal prisoners were drug offenders in 2011, compared to 30 percent in 1984. Judges can sentence outside the guideline range when they disagree with the underlying policy, Gleeson wrote. From 2007 to 2011, the average sentence for all federal drug trafficking cases has been 20 months below the average guidelines range minimum, Gleeson said. “The deep, easily traceable structural flaw in the current drug trafficking offense guideline produces advisory ranges that are greater than necessary to comply with the purposes of sentencing,” he wrote. “We must never lose sight of the fact that real people are at the receiving end of these sentences.” This isn’t the first time that Gleeson, a former federal prosecutor appointed to the Eastern District of New York in 1994, has issued a call from the bench for sentencing reform. In 2012, he wrote a sentencing memorandum that said mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases “distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences.” A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn said the office was reviewing the memorandum. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Sentencing Commission declined to comment. A lawyer for Diaz could not immediately be reached for comment. The case is U.S. v. Diaz, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, No. 11-821.

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Ray Lopez has practiced since 1990, with prior experience as a Hillsborough County assistant State attorney and lawyer for the Tampa Police Department. He handles all criminal charges, from traffic violations and misdemeanors to serious felonies and federal drug charges. He practices in all state and federal courts of the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida, as well as criminal appeals, juvenile court, administrative hearings, and civil forfeiture proceedings.

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