Under new federal sentencing guidelines, a slap on the wrist will probably be a thing of the past for many people convicted of illegal drug charges.
Wayne T. Dance, assistant U.S. attorney for Utah, told a Utah Federation for Drug-Free Youth convention workshop at the Salt Palace that penalties are getting stiffer.And the guidelines, part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act passed by Congress, leave judges very little discretion in sentencing.
In some circumstances minimum mandatory prison sentences are required, even though it may be a violator's first offense. And in some cases, offenders could end up spending a long time in prison, Dance said.
In the case of drug distribution or manufacturing offenses, the attorney said sentences are pegged almost entirely on the quantity and type of drugs involved.
"If you're involved with substantial quantities of some drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, minimum mandatory sentences of five or 10 years are required in prison. The other aspect to remember is that parole is no longer available for any type of federal offense committed after Nov. 1, 1987.
For example, a 10-year prison sentence would be just that, with no opportunity for part of the sentence to be served on parole. However, good behavior credits would still be available to a federal prisoner, and could amount to approximately one-sixth of the prison term, Dance said.
A three-page handout distributed to youths and adults at the workshop outlines possible penalties for federal drug offenses. The information shows, for example, that the possible penalty for selling, distributing or even giving away some drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, PCP and LSD, is a $1 million fine and a 20-year prison sentence. If death or serious bodily injury results, a life prison term is possible, with the convicted person being required to spend a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Formerly a deputy district attorney in Ventura County, California, Dance told the audience that the conference theme, "Reaching for a Natural High" is a worthwhile goal toward solving drug problems. And he strongly encouraged continued efforts to help youths develop strong egos, positive peer pressure, spiritual strength and to find enjoyment in life without drugs.
"We in law enforcement cannot achieve success in the drug war without this assistance, but it is also important to realize the importance of the criminal justice system. When people go into a tailspin in terms of drug distribution and other drug violations, then the criminal justice system has to take control over their lives in a very significant way."
The attorney said some drug offenses are much like playing Russian roulette, with "both the giver and the receiver holding the gun.
"The person who is selling or giving away dope is just as much at risk, or certainly close to as much risk, as the person taking it," Dance said.
He said problems associated with drugs and penalities for violators are just as applicable in Salt Lake City and in other places. "This is not only relevant to the big cities such as New York and Miami but to dope dealers in Salt Lake City. The reality of harsh penalties, including lengthy prison time, is very important to every single person who is involved in drugs, either as a user or as distributor."
Dance said he has seen many drug users go on to become drug dealers.
Dance is a prosecutor for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which investigates major drug organizations in Utah.