Criminal records have an impact on federal sentences for drug crimes in three ways. First, a defendant’s criminal history is taken into account when the judge computes the applicable Sentencing Guideline. Second, a defendant’s previous convictions for drug crimes can trigger mandatory minimum sentences for a new federal drug conviction.

Finally, some defendants with past felony convictions for drug crimes or violent crimes fall into a special category of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines known as “career offenders.”

When Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984, it wanted certain repeat offenders to receive sentences at or near the maximum. The Sentencing Guidelines attempt to achieve that goal by increasing recommended sentences for career offenders.

Treatment of Career Offenders

The recommended sentence for a career offender is enhanced in two ways. First, the defendant’s criminal history category is increased to level VI, the highest of the criminal history categories. As we explain in our article on How to Compute a Guideline Sentence, the criminal history category is an important factor that helps determine the recommended sentence.

Second, career offender status can increase the offense level, which is the other significant factor that determines a recommended sentence. Since both factors that drive recommended sentences are increased by a “career offender” designation, defendants suffer a “double whammy” if they are sentenced as career offenders.

Definition of Career Offender

A defendant is regarded as a “career offender” if:

  • The defendant was at least 18 years old when the federal crime for which the defendant is being sentenced was committed;
  • The federal felony for which the defendant is being sentenced is a drug crime or a crime of violence; and
  • The defendant has at least two prior felony convictions for either a drug crime, a crime of violence, or a combination of the two.

Prior felony convictions include convictions in state or federal court.

Convictions for drug crimes count if they are punishable by a sentence of more than one year (even if a lesser sentence was actually imposed) and if they involve the manufacture, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.

For the purpose of “career offender” status, if two prior convictions arose out of the same course of conduct, they will probably be treated as a single conviction rather than two separate convictions.

Whether a crime counts as a violent crime is not always easy to determine. In general, a violent crime involves the use, attempted use, or threat to use physical violence against another person. The definition of violent crime also includes some (but not all) burglaries, as well as arson, extortion, and other crimes that, by their nature, create a threat of violence.

Some (but not all) crimes involving the unlawful possession of a weapon are regarded as violent crimes. Convictions for violent crimes count toward career offender status if they are punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than one year, even if a lesser sentence was actually imposed.