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What is Amendment 821? A Summary of the Key Changes

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

What is Amendment 821? A Summary of the Key Changes

Amendment 821 is a new law that makes some big changes to the federal sentencing guidelines. It was passed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on August 31st, 2023. Some parts of the amendment will apply retroactively starting February 1st, 2024, which means some people already in prison can get their sentences reduced! Here’s an overview of what Amendment 821 does:

Reduces sentences for people with limited criminal histories

One of the main things Amendment 821 does is give shorter sentences to people who don’t have much of a criminal record. Here’s how it works:

  • If you have zero criminal history points under the sentencing guidelines, your sentence can be reduced by up to 2 levels.
  • This is called the “Zero Point Offender” adjustment. It applies if you have no prior convictions or only minor misdemeanor convictions.
  • It means your sentence could be around 25% shorter than it used to be for the same crime.

This change will really help people with no criminal record, or just petty crimes in their past, avoid super long sentences. The Sentencing Commission said too many first-timers were getting slammed with unfair sentences. This helps fix that problem.

Helps people who got inflated sentences

Amendment 821 also helps people who got sentences that were too high, even though their crime wasn’t that serious. Here’s what it does:

  • If your sentence seems too high for what you actually did, you can get it reduced.
  • This applies if your crime wasn’t “violent” or “serious.”
  • For example, if you got 10 years for a minor drug crime or non-violent theft, you could get a reduction.

This change keeps people from getting punished too harshly if their crime wasn’t that bad. It gives judges more flexibility to even out unfair sentences.

Applies retroactively to some current inmates

Here’s the really big deal – Amendment 821 can be used by lots of people who are already in federal prison. Here are the details:

  • It applies retroactively starting February 1st, 2024.
  • That means current federal inmates can file motions to get their sentences reduced under the new rules.
  • The Sentencing Commission estimates around 20,000 people could be eligible.

So if you’re already doing time in federal prison, talk to your lawyer about whether Amendment 821 could help lower your sentence. Don’t miss the February 1st deadline to file a motion.

Some key facts

Here are some other key facts about Amendment 821:

  • It passed by a 4-3 vote on the Sentencing Commission.
  • Some prosecutors and law enforcement groups opposed it.
  • But public defenders and criminal justice reform groups lobbied hard for it.
  • It introduces a new section 4C1.1 to the sentencing guidelines.
  • The changes take effect November 1, 2023 for new cases.

So in summary, Amendment 821 is a big deal, especially for inmates already serving time who may qualify for early release. Talk to an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to understand if it could help your case.

What are the arguments for Amendment 821?

Supporters of Amendment 821 make several arguments for why it’s good policy:

  • It creates more proportional punishments – sentences will better fit the crime.
  • It reduces prison overcrowding and costs.
  • It gives people incentives for rehabilitation.
  • It fixes unfair disparities between districts.
  • It brings sentences more in line with public opinion.

Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums say too many first-time offenders were getting stuck with ridiculous 15 or 20 year sentences. Amendment 821 helps change that.

The Sentencing Commission did a bunch of research showing long sentences don’t really deter crime more than shorter ones. So this change will enhance public safety without over-punishing.

What are the arguments against it?

Not everyone supports Amendment 821. Here are some of the counter-arguments:

  • Prosecutors say it could let some dangerous offenders out early.
  • Police groups say it undermines law enforcement efforts.
  • Some argue it decreases deterrence against crime.
  • Critics say judges already had enough discretion before.
  • They argue Congress should make any sentencing changes, not the Commission.

The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys opposed the amendment. They said it deprives prosecutors of a chance to argue for their desired sentences.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also criticized the move. He said it goes against the Trump administration’s goals of getting tough on crime and drugs.

How does the Ex Post Facto Clause affect Amendment 821?

The Ex Post Facto Clause in the U.S. Constitution prohibits criminal laws from being retroactive. But Amendment 821 was able to apply retroactively because:

  • It’s a change to sentencing guidelines, not a criminal statute.
  • The Sentencing Commission has authority to determine retroactivity.
  • Courts have upheld applying guidelines retroactively.

The Ex Post Facto Clause only applies to laws that make something retroactively illegal, or increase punishments retroactively. Since Amendment 821 reduces sentences, it doesn’t violate the clause.

How does Amendment 821 change civil forfeiture rules?

In addition to the big changes on criminal sentencing, Amendment 821 also makes some important reforms to civil forfeiture rules. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Police can no longer seize assets without a criminal conviction.
  • Previously, prosecutors could take property through civil forfeiture without charging anyone.
  • Now, they can only pursue forfeiture after securing a conviction.
  • This helps protect innocent property owners from abuse.

These changes will reign in the practice of civil forfeiture, which critics said was often used unjustly to take money and property without due process. Police and prosecutors will now have higher standards to meet before seizing assets.

What deadlines do I need to know?

To take advantage of Amendment 821, here are some key dates to keep in mind:

  • November 1, 2023 – The amendment takes effect for new cases.
  • February 1, 2024 – The retroactive provisions kick in for current inmates.
  • August 31, 2024 – The deadline to file a motion for retroactive reduction if you’re in prison.

Don’t miss these deadlines! Talk to your lawyer and file the motion by August 31, 2024 if you want to seek a reduced sentence under Amendment 821.


Amendment 821 is one of the biggest federal sentencing reforms in years. It aims to fix unfair punishments for low-level crimes. Around 20,000 current inmates could see their sentences cut. But some prosecutors argue it goes too far.

The impact remains to be seen, but Amendment 821 reflects a shift away from harsh mandatory sentences. It gives judges more discretion to impose fair and proportional punishments. For prisoners already serving long terms, it offers hope of early release in many cases.

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