In 2023, the United States Sentencing Commission completed a substantial update to the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG). This is the first such update since 2018 and reflects the priorities of the recently passed First Step Act, which aims to mitigate excessive sentencing and hopefully reduce mass incarceration.
The list of amendments includes several changes that will favor shorter sentencing in some instances and more robust sentencing in others. Most importantly, beginning in February 2024, some inmates will now qualify for sentencing reductions under these new guidelines, which officially went into effect on November 1, 2023.
Simply put, the United States Sentencing Commission has adopted a new set of amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines that can reduce or eliminate prison sentences for many convicted of federal crimes.
These amendments include that more first-time offenders will be eligible to avoid federal prison if convicted, and offenders currently on parole or probation might get reduced sentences. Offenders in poor health are eligible for reduced sentences, and the courts can consider reduced sentences for offenders caring for disabled family members.
Any inmates serving federal sentences for breaking laws that have since changed are eligible for sentence reductions or release. Inmates who were sexually assaulted or abused by correctional officers might be eligible for early release.
Notably, many of these amendments apply retroactively. This means when the Commission amends the sentencing guidelines to reduce sentencing ranges, they must also consider whether to make that change applicable to people who have already been sentenced and are currently imprisoned.
If a federal inmate is eligible, a district judge will review the case to decide whether to reduce their sentence. If the above information applies to you, you might qualify for a reduced prison sentence, no matter when you were convicted.
In other words, if you have been accused or convicted of a federal crime, it might be possible to reduce your prison time under new amendments adopted in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Let's take a quick look at some of the specific amendments to the USSG that went into effect this year.
What is Criminal History Amendment 821?
Amendment 821 is perhaps the most consequential change in USSG guidelines, reflecting shorter sentencing for current defendants and those already serving sentences. The main changes include:
- Part A: Reducing "Status Points" by one for individuals with seven or more criminal history points and removing them entirely for those with six or fewer. Status points measure the severity of prior criminal history, so reducing the number of status points can shorten one's sentence.
- Part B: Introducing a new guideline that offers a two-level offense reduction for "Zero-Point Offenders"—those with no prior criminal history—provided their offense did not include certain aggravating factors. It also offers new guidance on when a non-prison sentence may suit certain first-time offenders. These offenders have criminal history points due to no prior convictions, prior convictions that are too old to count, or convictions that are not counted for other specific reasons, such as a foreign court.
- Part C: Introducing new language to consider previous marijuana possession sentences as a potential reason for less severe punishment factors in criminal history—reflecting the more lenient stance on offenses regarding drug use.
In August 2023, the Commission voted to make Parts A and B retroactive for current federal inmates effective starting Feb. 1, 2024, meaning that thousands of current inmates may petition to reduce their sentences, and some may qualify for early release.
What is Compassionate Release Amendment 814?
Amendment 814 changes the rules for reducing prison sentences (again, by the First Step Act). It effectively accomplishes two things:
- It updates the "Compassionate Release" policy so prisoners can ask for a sentence reduction on their behalf. Before, only the Bureau of Prisons could ask for this.
- It broadens the list of "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to reduce a sentence in alignment with current factors, including recent court decisions and the pandemic. Examples include a more comprehensive range of medical reasons, reasons related to family situations, factors involving abuse, and excessive sentencing based on laws that are now obsolete.
- “Medical condition of the defendant” permits a sentence reduction if the defendant has a medical condition requiring specialized or long-term care that is not being adequately provided, putting them at risk of severe health deterioration or death. The amendment also allows reduced sentences for inmates caring for disabled family members.
The amendment gives judges more guidance by placing these categories in the primary text of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. It makes it easier for aging and at-risk inmates to seek sentence modifications.
What is Safety Valve Amendment 817?
Under Amendment 817, the Safety Valve guideline, which allows certain offenders to avoid mandatory minimum sentences, has been expanded. More defendants now qualify for below-mandatory minimum sentencing due to a relaxation of the criminal history requirements.
What is Acceptance of Responsibility Amendment 820?
This provision adds language to give more clarity on the specific actions that are considered "preparing for trial." By offering a comprehensive understanding of these actions, defendants will be better equipped to comprehend how their eligibility for sentencing reductions may be impacted.
This additional information aims to ensure that defendants have a fair and transparent understanding of the criteria involved in the process.
This amendment responds to circuit conflicts over whether a reduction under subsection (b) of 3E1.1 (acceptance of responsibility), which requires a motion from the government, may be withheld or denied if a defendant moves to suppress evidence or raise sentencing challenges.
What is Firearms Amendment 819?
In response to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, this amendment increases specific penalties related to firearms, such as the following:
- Straw purchases,
- Trafficking, and
- Organized crime affiliation.
It also heightens penalties for illegal firearm transfers and adds an increase for trafficking associated with criminal organizations.
It introduces a four-level increase for offenses involving "ghost guns" (privately made, unserialized firearms). Lastly, it offers a two-level decrease targeting less culpable straw purchasers with no more than one point in their criminal history.
What is Fake Pills Amendment 818?
In response to the recent dangerous proliferation of fentanyl in the drug market, this amendment introduces a 2-level enhancement in situations where someone falsely marketed or represented a mixture or substance containing fentanyl or a fentanyl analog as a legitimate manufactured drug.
This change aims to increase penalties for deceptive and dangerous practices, emphasizing the company's commitment to safety and legality.
What is Sexual Abuse Amendment 816?
Finally, Amendment 816 clarifies and strengthens penalties dealing with various types of sexual abuse. Specifically, as follows:
- It adds rules for new crimes identified in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization Act of 2022, including sex crimes committed during civil rights offenses and sex crimes against someone in federal custody,
- It increases the punishment for sexual abuse committed by law enforcement or correctional officers against people they are responsible for and
- It provides additional information on the handling of sexual abuse cases with certain aggravating factors.
The November 1, 2023, federal sentencing guideline amendments are designed to create a more equitable system by allowing for early release due to changes in law or by adding protections for inmates abused by the prison staff. However, successful navigation through the federal court system is often challenging.
Suppose you are under a federal criminal investigation, indicted, or already convicted and serving a sentence in federal prison. In that case, you will need a highly experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to have the best chance of a positive outcome. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.