More than 46,000 drug offenders—many of them Black and Hispanic—could be eligible for reduced sentences following a decision by the United States Sentencing Commission earlier this month.
Members of the Commission on July 18 voted unanimously to apply a reduction in sentencing guidelines for most federal drug crimes—a move decided upon in April—retroactively, meaning many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.
“This amendment received unanimous support from commissioners because it is a measured approach,” Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said in a statement. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
Congress has until Nov. 1, 2014, to nix the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. If they are allowed to stand, prisoners can begin petitioning the courts for sentence decreases but would not be eligible for release until Nov. 1, 2015. The year-long lag will give judges time to review cases to ensure that sentence reductions do not pose a risk to public safety among other considerations, the Commission said.
“The delay will help to protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans,” Saris said.
The Commission’s recommendation has been praised by the Obama administration, which has expressed its enthusiasm for implementing the plan.
“We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department’s support for this balanced approach,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, chief of the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the prison system.
“In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence,” Holder added. “This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system.”
According to federal data, the population of U.S. federal prisons exceeds capacity by around 32 percent. Half of that population are drug offenders, who also represent 66 percent of the increase in the federal prison population. Overcrowded prisons cost taxpayers millions. Just the retroactive application of the Commission’s amendment could save an estimated $2.3 billion.
And there are other tolls.
“While these figures are staggering, the human cost has been even greater,” U.S. House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) said in a joint statement.
“For decades, the federal ‘War on Drugs’ has been the primary engine of mass incarceration….This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown—for decades—that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than Whites,” the congressmen added. “…The Commission’s historic vote today also seeks to right this disproportionate racial impact.”