Layered legal system worth tracking in drug cases

Sentencing is not an issue that deserves to be a top priority when someone in Georgia is arrested on drug charges. Many things warrant greater attention in the early stages of the legal process. However, experienced defense attorneys know the value of maintaining a big-picture perspective while dealing with specific details as they arise.

In that context, it's useful to be aware of differences in sentencing practices that can exist as a result of the multi-tiered justice system we have in the U.S. There are federal laws, there are state laws, and if there is overlap - as there can be in many drug cases - it is possible for charges to be brought at either of those levels, or both.

What's the difference?

Every state's laws are different, but generally speaking, state rules related to sentencing often emphasize providing rehabilitation opportunities for offenders rather than focusing on punishment. Federal law is less forgiving. Many crimes carry minimum mandatory sentences and a conviction for a relatively minor possession crime can lead to serious incarceration time.

During the just-ended Obama presidency, the policy promoted by Washington was one that encouraged U.S. attorneys in the field to focus their attention on the most serious of drug crimes. Lesser offenses, especially when no violence was involved, were often channeled to the state systems. Observers say federal prison populations were reduced as a result.

Things have taken a turn with the arrival of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is known for being hard on drug offenders and he reinforced the perception recently by way of a memo to U.S. attorneys. In it, Sessions told prosecutors they should begin to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" whenever possible.

Observers predict this heralds a return to tougher sentencing practices. We can only wait to see if that happens. In the meantime, early engagement of an attorney offers a greater chance of influencing which system handles a case.

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