I am reviewing the Discovery (meaning the evidence) in a somewhat old federal criminal case that has ties to both Atlanta and North Carolina. My client is accused of a drug crime, and from the indictment and other materials it appears that the prosecutors contend that there is a mandatory minimum penalty of 5 years in custody, and up to a potential maximum of life in custody. Obviously, this is a very serious matter. While this case and the potential penalty are each very serious, the possible sentence caused me to reflect on how far the federal criminal system has come in the 37 years I have been involved.
I started in 1982, and way back then, there were no mandatory penalties, no Sentencing Guidelines, and anyone who got a custodial sentence for a federal crime generally was eligible for early release, or “parole.” Things began to change in the middle of the 1980’s. Drug crimes started getting more violent. Then, in 1984 Congress created those Sentencing Guidelines, a mandatory and overly mechanical system for imposing harsher and harsher penalties. At the same time, they did away with parole, and our clients entered a system where they had to serve the entire sentence, other than a potential small reduction for “good behavior.” Continue reading