A federal judge recently declined to sentence a defendant with ecstasy charges within the federal sentencing guidelines because he felt the federal sentencing guidelines punish ecstasy crimes too harshly and are not scientifically justified.
In federal court, when a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted at trial, the judge will determine his/her sentencing guidelines prior to sentencing. The ultimate guideline range takes several factors into consideration including, for drug cases, the type of drug and the quantity of the drug. Crimes involving some drugs result in higher sentencing ranges than others. A person’s criminal history and the circumstances of the crime are also factors in determining one’s sentencing guidelines range. Ultimately, a guideline range for the crime that is measured in months will be established which suggests that the judge should sentence the defendant somewhere within that range. Federal judges are not required to sentence the defendant within that range; they can depart above or below that range based on the nature of the criminal activity and the particular defendant and other factors.
In this case, the defendant pled guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute ecstasy. His sentencing guidelines range was 63 – 78 months in federal prison. The judge, however, departed well below that guidelines range and sentenced the defendant to 26 months in prison. At the sentencing hearing, the judge was presented with testimony about the relative safety of ecstasy, including testimony from a Harvard psychiatrist who referenced a five year study that found long term recreational ecstasy use did not cause clinically significant damaging effects. The judge concluded that the harshness of the ecstasy sentencing guidelines did not have a rational relationship to the effects of the drug and a sentence within the guidelines range would be greater than necessary to achieve the objectives of sentencing.