« New Federal Sentencing Reporter double issue explores "Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections" | Main | SCOTUS rules unanimously in favor of defendant in latest Armed Career Criminal Act ruling »

March 6, 2022

"Dealing in Lives: Imposition of Federal Life Sentences for Drugs from 1990–2020"

I am extraordinarily pleased and proud to be able spotlight this terrific new research paper authored by Alex Fraga, who serves as a Senior Research Associate at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).  The paper shares the title of this post, and the work is an extraordinary compilation and examination of federal drug life sentence.  Here is the paper's abstract:

The “tough on crime” era of the 1980’s and 1990’s ushered in a growing reliance on prisons, the ratcheting up of sentence lengths, and a broader expansion of the criminal justice system.  Life sentences, historically rarely imposed, became increasingly commonplace in the 1980s through the 2000s, contributing to the ballooning imprisoned population. While there are growing concerns about the increased use of life sentences in the United States, there has been limited empirical study of these sentences.  This report seeks to fill this gap with a particular focus on the federal sentencing system and the imposition of life sentences for drug offenses.  Specifically, the current report documents federal life sentences imposed for drug trafficking over the last three decades, taking a closer look at the defendant and case-specific characteristics, and providing a descriptive account of the factors that are associated with those sentenced to life in prison in federal courts.

At this DEPC webpage, a number of the paper's key findings (and visuals) can be viewed.  Here is the first one:

Key Finding 1:  After record highs in the 1990s and 2000s, the number and rate of life and de facto life sentences imposed have declined significantly over the last decade.

March 6, 2022 at 08:28 PM | Permalink


During my years in Federal penitentiaries and FCIs (medium security, average sentence length was 23 years) between 2000 and 2008, I met and worked on the cases 9in the prison law library) many inmates with life sentences for drug offenses. While some of those life sentences appeared to be deserved, many others did not. Particularly offensive were some of the Mandatory life sentences imposed after the Government filed the Section 851 paperwork, usually against defendants who refused to cooperate and provide information to the Government. Two of those cases stand out in my memory. One involved a man with prior drug felonies (possession, not distribution), who got caught with about 800 grams of meth in his trunk. He knew that if he cooperated and debriefed, the people he got the meth from would kill his family members. The Government filed the Section 851 papers and he got an automatic life sentence. His wife got a lesser sentence, and their 5 children were farmed out to foster care in Florida. One of his predicate possession of cocaine convictions involved residue found by the police on scales (barely a measurable amount). Another Section 851 case involved a young black man from a public housing project in S.E. D.C. The total amount of drugs involved in his predicate crimes was 2 grams of heroin and 8 ounces of marijuana; he received a mandatory life sentence at age 21 (or so). He could easily live 60 years in Federal prison, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $50,000 per year in a penitentiary, more than $3 million in total. That life sentence simply makes no rational sense. I am pleased that Congress has amended section 851 sentences down to 25 years from life, but I doubt that is retroactive for people already serving Section 851 life sentences. To me, it is deeply flawed policy, creating a tragedy for hundreds of inmates, their children and families.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Mar 7, 2022 9:42:25 AM

Many of the 25-year sentences in 851 cases are also disproportionate, though obviously better than Life.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Mar 7, 2022 12:38:24 PM

I came across this web site while doing research on my little brothers case, his case is from 2009,he too was sentenced with 851 enhancement,priors consisted of 2 simple possession charges and 2 paraphernalia charges that occurred on the same day,so from this "conspiracy" he was allegedly a part of,even though he was not a willing or knowing participant of, which the prosecutor said he did not have to be a knowing or willing participant of to still be charged with it(I do not understand that,by definition does one not HAVE to knowingly and willingly conspire?),anyways the kid got life.... that was 13 years ago, he does not qualify for the reduction because it is not retroactive.... it's truly heartbreaking... would u mind looking him up? DONAVAN MICHAEL SLAGG # 09685-059...

Posted by: melanie | Apr 3, 2022 12:52:19 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB