What Does Drug Quanity Measure

Miles D. Harer, Federal Bureau of Prisons
Paul J. Hofer, U.S. Sentencing Commission

The two primary purposes of sentencing under the federal guidelines are 1) to punish offenders proportionately to the seriousness of their offense, and 2) protect the public from offenders who are likely to commit additional crimes if left free. Drug trafficking offenders constitute over 40 percent of the people sentenced in federal court, and the primary determinant of sentences in these cases is the quantity of drugs involved in their offense. This research uses a random sample of 1995 drug offenders to assess how well drug quantity serves as a measure of offense seriousness and offender dangerousness. The relationships between drug quantity and the offender's role in the offense, his position within the criminal organization, the nature of these organizations, and other measures of culpability are examined. In addition, independent measures of offender dangerousness are used to determine whether drug quantity accurately targets the right offenders for lengthy imprisonment.

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Updated 05/20/2006