Thousands of drug offenders could see sentences shortened

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted Friday to retroactively apply reduced sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenders, an action that could mean shortened sentences for tens of thousands of inmates.

If not overturned by Congress, inmates would not be eligible for reduced sentences until November of next year, to ensure judges are given enough time to make case-by-case decisions about releasing inmates early.

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The move won immediate praise from the Obama administration, congressional Democrats and left-leaning think tanks who say the move would promote fairness in the criminal justice system, while addressing capacity problems at prisons around the country.

“At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately,” Attorney Gen. Eric Holder said. “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.”

Friday’s vote follows an April decision to shorten sentencing guidelines for most drug offenders going forward. Congress has until November of this year to disapprove that amendment.

In the absence of action, courts could begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions this November, but no prisoners could be released before Nov. 1, 2015.

“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 Patti B. Saris, the commission’s chairwoman.

If the decision stands, an estimated 46,290 offenders would be eligible to seek shortened sentences.

Those approved would see an average of 25 months shaved off their sentences, ultimately resulting in the saving of near 80,000 “bed years,” the equivalent of one federal prisoner occupying a prison bed for a year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hailed the ruling as a step toward easing the “unsustainable” strains placed on the country’s prisons.

“It will begin to ease dangerous prison overcrowding and improve public safety,” Leahy said. “Every dollar spent on unnecessary incarceration strips finite resources from critical law enforcement priorities.”