Public Release: 

Strict interpretation of drug-sentencing law impedes war on drugs

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- An overly strict interpretation for sentencing drug traffickers who at first lie to police threatens to undercut the fairness of America's war on drugs, the author of a just-published article in the University of Illinois Law Review argues.

Jeffrey J. Shebesta, an associate editor of the law review, zeroes in on the inconsistencies of the "safety-valve" reform measure that was enacted as part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The provision was passed by Congress to lower the mandatory minimum sentence of "mules," or drug runners, who cooperated with police.

Prior to that time, "get-tough" mandatory drug sentences for low-level traffickers had been criticized by judges, defense lawyers and even prosecutors for punishing minor offenders much more harshly than anyone involved believed was warranted, Shebesta noted.

Federal courts, however, have interpreted the safety-valve reforms differently, leading to different prison sentences for similar offenders in different parts of the country.

The 1st and 7th U.S. circuit courts have ruled that defendants who make initial false statements to police are automatically disqualified from safety-valve sentence reduction. "Even if a defendant in these circuits ultimately makes a complete and truthful statement within the required time frame, no safety-valve sentence reduction is available," wrote Shebesta, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law.

On the other hand, the 2d, 8th and 9th circuits have ruled that a defendant who lies, but then makes a complete and truthful statement to police before sentencing is eligible for safety-valve relief.

The difference in interpretations means that first-time drug offenders in the 1st and 7th circuits (including Illinois) get 10 or more years in prison for an offense that nets offenders in the other circuits five or more years.

Reviewing congressional intent, Shebesta concluded that the courts should not penalize defendants who at first lie and then tell the truth. Such an interpretation, he argued, is important in winning the war against drugs by identifying drug kingpins and overseas cartels.

"A defendant who knows he is immediately disqualified (from safety-valve relief) has no incentive to reveal his sources and co-conspirators, and the cost of being labeled a 'rat' is great among the drug dealing and prison community," Shebesta wrote.

At the same time, the U.S. Sentencing Commission should establish more explicit guidelines about the type of statements required by defendants in order to win safety-valve relief, Shebesta wrote. Among the benefits of better guidelines, according to Shebesta, is a reduction of the excessive current litigation over whether a defendant has met the safety-valve requirement.

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