While sentence lengths for most federal drug trafficking offenses have decreased in recent years, methamphetamine sentences are moving in the opposite direction, lengthening by 12% between FY2015 and FY2019. Using data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission and other sources, I consider several possible reasons for this increase. I conclude that four recent trends have jointly produced longer meth sentences: (1) drug volumes have increased, (2) the criminal history of the average offender has become more extensive, (3) weapon enhancements and charges have become more common, and (4) cases have grown increasingly likely to be sentenced as high-purity “ice” or by “actual” meth content, which carry much more punitive mandatory and guideline minimums than meth mixture.
How much of the increase in sentence lengths has been attributable to shifting case characteristics (e.g., growing drug volumes, changing criminal histories, and increased weapons use) versus efforts to charge and pursue offenses that carry greater penalties? I use USSC data to conduct several simulations estimating how sentence lengths would have evolved if all meth cases were sentenced as the same meth type. I predict that the average meth trafficking sentence would have lengthened by 27–33% less, or 3.3–4.0 fewer months, if all cases were sentenced as the same meth type but all other case attributes remained unchanged. The remainder of the growth is attributable to case and offender characteristics. However, this prediction assumes that relief and leniency decisions would not change if statutory and guideline minimums were altered; to allow for this possibility, I run another set of simulations, taking these possible offsetting effects into account. My latter simulations predict that trafficking sentences might have increased 13–16% less than they did in reality, a smaller magnitude than my initial estimates.
I briefly consider the underlying reasons for these trends. Some, but not all, of the changing offense characteristics may be linked to the recent shift to Mexican methamphetamine production. The timing of the shift in meth type charged suggests it may largely be the result of a change in Justice Department charging policy enacted in 2017; this shift cannot be attributed to any change in drug purity.