Published on: Thursday, April 12, 2018

During a public meeting today, the United States Sentencing Commission unanimously voted on a slate of new amendments to the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which the Commission will officially transmit to Congress on May 1, 2018. The amendments will go into effect on November 1, 2018, if Congress does not act to disapprove them.  A reader friendly version of the text of the proposed amendments is available here.  

Here are some highlights from the Commission’s press release:

At the meeting, the Commissioners approved a multi-part synthetic drugs amendment. The amendment draws upon public comment, expert testimony, and data analysis gathered during a multi-year study of synthetic drugs. Before today’s actions, many new synthetic drugs were not referenced in the federal sentencing guidelines. As a result, courts have faced expensive and resource-intensive hearings. The Commission’s actions reflect the evolving nature of these new drugs and will simplify and promote uniformity in sentencing these offenders.

Among today’s actions, the Commissioners voted to adopt a new guideline definition of the term “fentanyl analogue.” The change effectively raises the guideline penalties for fentanyl analogues to a level more consistent with the current statutory penalty structure. To address the severe dangers posed by fentanyl, the Commissioners also voted to adopt a four-level sentencing enhancement for knowingly misrepresenting or knowingly marketing fentanyl or fentanyl analogues as another substance (which equates to an approximate 50 percent increase in sentence).

The new amendment also establishes drug ratios and minimum offense levels for two new classes of synthetics drugs: synthetic cathinones (often referred to as “bath salts”) and synthetic cannabinoids (including, but not limited to, “K2” or “spice”). Following a multi-year study and series of public hearings with experts, the Commission found that synthetic cathinones possess a common chemical structure that is sufficiently similar to treat as a single class of synthetic drugs. The Commission also found that, while synthetic cannabinoids differ in chemical structure, the drugs induce similar biological responses and share similar pharmacological effects. In setting the new drug ratios, the Commission considered among other factors, the severity of the medical harms to the user, the current ratios applied in similar cases, known trafficking behaviors, and concerns for public safety. In recognition that potencies vary, the Commission also adopted departure language for drugs in a class that are more or less potent.

The Commission also voted to adopt a new application note providing that judges should consider alternative sentencing options for “nonviolent first offenders” whose applicable guideline range falls within Zones A or B. Eligible defendants must not have any prior convictions and must not have used violence, credible threats of violence, or possessed a firearm or other dangerous weapon in the offense. This narrowly-tailored amendment is consistent with the directive to the Commission in 28 U.S.C. § 994(j).

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At the meeting, the Commission also increased offense levels for certain Social Security fraud offenses to incorporate statutory changes resulting from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. The Commission received valuable comment from the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, and the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee as well as the Social Security Administration. Today’s amendment provides for an enhancement and a minimum offense level for individuals who violate certain positions of trust (e.g., health care providers, claims representatives, and others) in a manner that addresses the seriousness and sophistication of these fraudulent schemes.

The Commission also voted to adopt the recommendations made by the Tribal Issues Advisory Group in its May 2016 report. The amendment provides a non-exhaustive list of factors that courts may consider in determining whether a prior tribal court conviction warrants an upward departure from the recommended sentencing range. The amendment also adds a definition for "court protection order” for purposes of applying an enhancement under the aggravated assault, harassment, and domestic violence guidelines. Other technical and miscellaneous amendments were also adopted at today’s public meeting.

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