Drug Sentences Can Be Cut Retroactively, U.S. Agency Say

Federal drug offenders may get their sentences cut by almost a fifth under changes to U.S. guidelines in a move praised by Attorney General Eric Holder, who has made fairness in sentencing and prison overcrowding two of his signature issues.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission today voted unanimously to allow some convicts to return to court and seek shorter terms, according to a commission statement. The commission, which has the legal power to permit judges to act retroactively, said offenders eligible for reductions could see their sentences cut by an average of 25 months, or 18.8 percent.

“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,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.

Holder said last year that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders would no longer be charged with federal crimes that impose strict, mandatory minimum sentences.

The commission also approved changes to its advisory sentencing guidelines that judges may apply to resentencing, cutting the amount of time in prison depending on characteristics of the crime and the criminal.

Congress’s Approval

Unlike the retroactivity policy, alterations in the guidelines must be submitted to Congress, said Jeanne Doherty, a spokeswoman for the commission.

Unless Congress rejects the changes by Nov. 1, they will become part of the guidelines, according to the commission. No prisoner would be eligible for release before Nov. 1, 2015, to give judges time to review the proposed shorter sentences, the commission said.

The one-year delay in implementing the policy 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 said in the statement.

The commission said 46,290 prisoners will be eligible to have their cases reviewed by a judge, helping reduce corrections budgets. According to the Justice Department, federal and state governments spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010. Almost a third of the Justice Department’s budget is dedicated to the Bureau of Prisons, which houses more than 200,000 inmates.

The federal Bureau of Prisons population currently exceeds capacity by about 32 percent, according to the commission.

The prison authorities will begin notifying federal inmates of their opportunity to apply for reduced sentences immediately, Holder said.

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