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Competing Sentencing Policies in a "War on Drugs" Era

NCJ Number
Wake Forest Law Review Volume: 28 Issue: 2 Dated: (Summer 1993) Pages: 305- 327
W W Wilkins Jr; P J Newton; J R Steer
Date Published
23 pages
The Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984 directed the creation of a permanent, bipartisan commission to develop and refine sentencing guidelines, and the statute's application to drug offenders is assessed.
The goal of the SRA was to enhance the criminal justice system's ability to combat crime through an effective and fair sentencing system. Congress hoped to achieve proportionality in sentencing system through a system that recognized differences in defendants and their offenses. The SRA resulted in the establishment of sentencing guidelines that sought to individualize sentencing and incorporate appellate sentence review. At the time sentencing reform was being considered, problems associated with drug abuse became nationally prominent. Enacted in 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act contained several mandatory minimum sentence provisions for drug-related offenses. These provisions were tied to the quantity of drugs involved in the offense. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 focused on the increased violence associated with the drug trade and the growing involvement of youth and incorporated mandatory minimum penalties. Due to problems in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, Congress formally directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to examine the compatibility between sentencing guidelines and mandatory sentences. A subsequent study found that defendants whose offense conduct and offender characteristics appeared to warrant application of mandatory sentences did not receive the sentence statutorily mandated about 41 percent of the time. Even when consistently applied by prosecutors, some mandatory sentences contained inherent limitations that prevented their application to all similarly situated defendants. The authors recommend that Congress refrain from enacting additional statutorily mandated minimum sentences and instead use an approach more compatible with the sentencing guideline system. 124 footnotes