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
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.