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

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

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow some convicts to return to court and seek shorter terms, according to a statement by the agency. 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,” Holder said yesterday in a statement.

The commission also approved changes to the criteria, including characteristics of the crime and the offender, that judges may apply to resentencing.

Alterations in the guidelines on sentence lengths must be submitted to Congress, said Jeanne Doherty, a spokeswoman for the commission. Unless Congress rejects the changes by Nov. 1, they will take effect a year later, according to the commission.

The one-year 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 said in the statement.

46,290 Eligible

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.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, said yesterday’s announcement relates to a broader effort by Holder and the administration of President Barack Obama to address the criminal justice system’s disproportionately harsh treatment of minorities. Mauer’s group advocates for reforms in sentencing policy and alternatives to incarceration.

Obama in 2010 signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in sentencing that treated crack cocaine offenses more severely than crimes related to powder cocaine. The president last year commuted the sentences of eight people who’d been sentenced to long terms under the previous crack law.

Mandatory Sentences

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

About 100,000 people are serving sentences in federal prisons for drug-related offenses compared with about 230,000 serving terms in state facilities for such crimes, according to Mauer. Almost half of federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug-related crimes compared to about 17 percent in state prisons, he said.

While the commission’s vote won’t help state prisoners, it “may have some symbolic effect on the states,” Mauer said. “The federal government making a sweeping change helps the political climate on these issues,” and “opens up” the debate about changing state structures, he said.

Billions in Savings

The commission estimates the sentence reductions could result in saving as many as 79,740 “bed years,” the equivalent of a prisoner occupying a bed for a year. Mauer multiplies that by the $30,000 annual cost of incarceration to arrive at a savings of as much as $2.4 billion.

Holder is “approaching it both terms of efficiency of government, and also on fairness and injustice,” Mauer said. “It’s one more way society has really come to harm African-American communities -- through the ripple effects of incarceration.”

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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