August 17, 2017

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Structural Reform and Synthetic Drugs Among Top Priorities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States Sentencing Commission today approved its final policy priorities for the upcoming amendment year ending May 1, 2018, which includes an examination of the overall structure of the guidelines and a continuation of its work on synthetic drugs. The Commission also voted to publish several holdover proposals from the previous amendment cycle. Watch the public meeting.

During the upcoming amendment year, the Commission will continue to explore approaches to simplify and strengthen the guidelines. “On this thirtieth year of the federal sentencing guidelines system, the Commission welcomes the opportunity to work with the Congress, the Courts, the Department of Justice, and other stakeholders to find ways to promote certainty and proportionality in sentencing while reducing the complexity of the guidelines,” stated Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., acting chair of the Commission.

The Commission will also continue its two-year study of synthetic drugs. In April, the Commission held a public hearing to receive testimony on the prevalence and effect of synthetic drugs. The Commission has since commenced a study of specific categories of synthetic drugs, including fentanyl. The Commission will research their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, potential for addiction, legislative and scheduling history, and other relevant issues. The study is intended to provide a meaningful distinction between categories of synthetic drugs so that closely related substances are more easily determined in the guidelines.

Acting Chair Pryor noted, “It is important that the Commission provide current and clear guidance in synthetic drug cases. Our ongoing, independent data analysis and legal research, informed by expert testimony and public comment, will provide a sound basis to properly address the classification and treatment of synthetic drugs under the federal sentencing guidelines.”

The Commission announced plans for a public hearing in the fall on synthetic cathinones. Several issues for comment were also published on synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids. These actions will mark the Commission’s second public hearing and third public comment period on synthetic drugs.

Stemming from the Commission’s research on youthful offenders as well as recommendations made by the Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) in its May 2016 report, the Commission will also continue to study how juvenile sentences are considered in the calculation of the defendant’s criminal history score.

Other priorities include continued work on mandatory minimum penalties. Following the release of the 2017 Mandatory Minimum Overview in July, which built on the Commission’s 2011 report, the Commission will release additional reports highlighting the impact of mandatory minimum penalties for certain offense categories. The Commission will also continue to work with Congress to adopt a uniform definition of “crime of violence” included in recommendations set forth in the 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.

The Commission also published today several proposed guideline amendments from the previous amendment cycle and as an extension of its current policy priority work. “Today’s proposed amendments are a continuation of our work during the previous amendment year. These holdover proposals were not voted on last year due to the lack of a quorum during the deliberation process. Publishing today gives this reconstituted Commission an opportunity to carefully review these proposals and consider them as early as possible in the current amendment cycle,” stated Judge Pryor.

Among the proposed amendments published today are changes that would increase the number of federal offenders eligible for alternatives to incarceration. Informed by the Commission’s multi-year study on recidivism, one of the proposed amendments would add a downward adjustment to the guidelines for first offenders.

Based on other recommendations made by the TIAG, the Commission also published a proposed guideline definition of “court protection order” and a proposal that would allow tribal court convictions to be used as the basis for an upward departure.

Another proposed amendment would implement statutory changes resulting from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 which increased penalties for certain social security fraud offenses.

Other proposed amendments include clarification in the commentary related to acceptance of responsibility along with other technical and conforming changes.

The Commission annually reviews and revises the federal sentencing guidelines in accordance with its statutory responsibilities. The Commission invited public comment on its tentative list of annual policy priorities in June and received more than 81,000 submissions, a record number of responses for the agency.

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The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch of the federal government, was organized in 1985 to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts. The resulting sentencing guidelines provide structure for the courts’ sentencing discretion to help ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences.