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3.1: Career Criminals

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    The United States Sentencing Commission was directed by Congress to set sentencing guidelines for repeat violent offenders or repeat drug trafficking offenders, known as “Career Offenders,” at or near the statutory maximum penalty. Tracking statutory criteria, a defendant qualifies as a Career Offender in the sentencing guidelines if:

    the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time he or she committed the instant offense the instant offense is a felony that is a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense the defendant has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.

    There were 75,836 federal criminal cases reported to the United States Sentencing Commission during fiscal year 2014. Of the 67,672 cases in which the Commission received complete guideline application information, 2,269 (3.4%) offenders were sentenced as career offenders. Offenders sentenced under the career offender guidelines over the past ten years have consistently accounted for about three percent of federal offenders sentenced each year.

    While career offenders account for just 3% of the annual federal caseload, they account for more than 11% of the federal prison population due to their lengthy prison sentences (on average, more than 12 years, or 147 months, in prison).

    Career offenders often receive sentences below the guideline range (often at the government’s request), especially when they qualify as career offenders on the basis of drug trafficking offenses alone (“drug trafficking only” pathway).

    Although career offenders with a violent instant or prior offense often have more serious criminal histories, the career offender directive has the most significant impact on drug trafficking offenders because they often carry higher statutory maximum penalties than some violent offenses

    Despite similar average guideline minimums, “drug trafficking only” career offenders are generally sentenced less severely than other career offenders. In these cases, federal judges impose sentences similar to the sentences recommended in the guidelines for the underlying drug trafficking offense.

    While career offenders, as a group, tend to recidiviate at higher rates than non-career offenders, the United States Sentencing Commission found a lower recidivism rate among career offenders qualifying on the basis of drug trafficking offenses alone.

    In addition to having a more serious and extensive criminal history, career offenders who have committed a violent offense recidivate at a higher rate and are more likely to commit another violent offense in the future (see the “violent only” and “mixed” groups in the table below).


    Drug Trafficking

    Only Mixed

    Only Mixed

    Recidivism Rate:




    Median Time to Recidivism

    26 Months

    20 Months

    14 Months

    Most Serious Post-Release Event








    Table 1. U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Recidivism Study Cohort Followed for Eight Years

    Offender Demographics & Offense Characteristics

    In fiscal year 2014, Black offenders accounted for more than half (59.7%) of offenders sentenced under the career offender guideline, followed by White (21.6 %), Hispanic (16.0%), and Other races (2.7%). Nearly all offenders sentenced under the career offender guideline were male (97.5%) and U.S. citizens (97.7%). Their average age at sentencing was 38 years.

    In 2014, nearly three-quarters (74.1%) of career offenders were convicted of a drug trafficking offense. The remaining offenders would have been sentenced for robbery (11.6%), unlawful receipt, possession, or transportation of firearms (5.4%), aggravated assault (1.6%), and drug offenses occurring near a protected location (1.6%). Other offense types constituted the remaining 5.8 percent.

    3.1: Career Criminals is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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