Tens of thousands of federal prisoners could be eligible for early release next year after a government panel voted Friday to revisit the harsh sentences imposed during America’s “war on drugs.”
The US Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the federal judiciary charged with establishing appropriate punishments for federal crimes, had already overhauled its drug-sentencing guidelines in April, reducing prison sentences for those newly convicted of selling or possessing drugs of any type.
On Friday, the commission voted unanimously to apply these new, more lenient sentences to those who are already serving time.
“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti Saris, chairwoman of the commission, 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.”
At least 46,000 inmates could be eligible for release after Nov. 1, 2015, the commission said. Congress has until November this year to nix the new guidelines, if it so chooses.
The commission’s vote comes amid a rising consensus across the country of the need to roll back the harsh terms of an earlier era. The federal prison system is now 32 percent over capacity, officials say, and many state prison systems are also weighed down by nonviolent drug offenders.
"As we continue the march toward fairness in our country’s failed, racially biased sentencing policies, we can’t leave behind those who had the bad luck to receive their sentences before the policies were changed," said Jesselyn McCurdy, senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement. "Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people who received overly harsh sentences under the old sentencing guidelines.”
Some prosecutors, however, object to the new guidelines. "The strong sentencing scheme that has been in place in place over the last 25 years in our country has contributed to the lowest crime rates in more than a generation," said the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, in a statement. The group said the move would lead to more crime and thwart deals with defendants, who would be less willing to take a plea.
Friday’s vote also follows new US clemency guidelines issued in April, giving eligible nonviolent drug offenders now serving time in federal custody the opportunity to apply for a presidential order for early release.
The new federal sentencing guidelines, applied retroactively, could reduce the prison population by nearly 80,000 “bed years” – the measure for one federal prisoner occupying a prison bed for a year. More than 216,000 inmates are currently held in the federal system.
Eligible offenders could have their sentences reduced by nearly 20 percent, or an average of 25 months, officials say.
If Congress allows the guidelines to move forward, the retroactive move would be delayed at least one year as judges, prosecutors, and probation officers sort through applications and determine which inmates are eligible for early release.
“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,” said Judge Saris.
Prison reform advocates welcomed the new guidelines.
“Today, seven people unanimously decided to change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences,” said Julie Steward, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in a statement. “FAMM commends the U.S. Sentencing Commission for its boldness, as well as federal judges, members of Congress, reform groups, and the more than 60,000 letter writers who joined with FAMM to demand that the Commission grant full retroactivity."