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Drug Trafficking: A Sentencing Perspective

NCJ Number
Date Published
September 1989
Sentencing data on drug traffickers was collected from 39 large, urban jurisdictions nationwide (including 30 among the 75 most populous counties in which the majority of drug trafficking cases are processed) and compared to sentencing outcomes in Federal courts.

Drug traffickers and burglars are the two major offense groups constituting the largest percentages (16) of State felony sentences; drug possession constitutes an additional 9 percent of the sentences. Drug traffickers have a relatively low rate of imprisonment (33 percent), probably resulting from the varying definitions of "possession with intent" to sell among jurisdictions. Another 45 percent of traffickers are sentenced to jail, and 62 percent of all convicted traffickers receive a probation sentence. States with determinate sentencing legislation rely more heavily on jail than do indeterminate jurisdictions. Indeterminate sentences are substantially higher than indeterminate, but the longer sentences are offset by provisions such as good behavior, earned time, and discretionary release authority. Life sentences for traffickers are rare, but they do occur in New York State because of the 1971 "Rockefeller Drug Law" and the creation of a special narcotics court to try major trafficking cases. Sentencing does differ for marijuana and non-marijuana trafficking offenses, when different citations are provided for in State penal codes. There has been an increase in the number of drug traffickers sentenced to prison and to jail, reflecting public concern over the issue. However, those who plead guilty are sentenced to prison less often and receive far shorter sentences. Traffickers tried in Federal courts are equally as likely to be convicted, but much more likely to go to prison than those convicted at the State court level. Federal courts generally try more serious cases and do not distinguish between prison and jail. 6 tables, 3 notes.

Date Published: September 30, 1989