Jul 17 5:15 PM

Drug sentencing reforms could mean freedom for 51,000 federal prisoners

Attorney General Eric Holder is overseeing a clemency-application program for drug offenders.
Charles Dharapak/AP

At its meeting tomorrow, the U.S. Sentencing Commission could vote to reduce the prison terms of some 51,000 federally convicted drug offenders. A vote in favor of reduction — based on a Commission proposal submitted to Congress in April — would shave an average of 23 months off these inmates’ sentences, and thousands would be eligible for immediate release.

Advocates hope this move is part of a sea change in the War on Drugs, one that appears to have gained momentum in the final years of the Obama administration. It comes just a few months after Attorney General Eric Holder announced an ambitious plan to entertain pardon applications from thousands convicted under onerous, since-reformed drug laws, including the notorious crack/powder cocaine disparity. (Al Jazeera has previously covered the clemency-plan rollout and its anticipated bureaucratic hurdles.)

In April, the Commission voted unanimously to reduce by two “offense levels” the penalties for trafficking in marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, and powder and crack cocaine. Holder prominently supported that decision, but the Justice Department has since opposed making the reduced penalties fully retroactive to the tens of thousands already serving harsher sentences.

Here is an overview of the 51,141 offenders eligible for early release under the Commission’s plan:

  • The average eligible offender is serving a roughly 10-year sentence, and 94 percent were sentenced within the past decade. (Each of the drugs affected by the Commission’s plan is subject to five and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress, which are tied to the amount of drug involved.)
  • Retroactive application of the reduced sentences would save the Bureau of Prisons 83,500 “bed years” and $2.4 billion. (It costs about $28,900 to incarcerate an average federal prisoner for one year.)
  • Roughly 4,600 inmates would receive sentence reductions longer than their remaining time, making them eligible for immediate release. But a compromise proposal under consideration could give the government until next May to actually begin releasing offenders. Another roughly 3,600 people would be eligible for release within a year.
  • Nearly 15,000 inmates, or roughly 30 percent, are serving time in just three locations: Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

The most important statistic, though, could be the number of people left out. The Justice Department has suggested making a large swath of the 51,141 inmates ineligible for reductions on the grounds that they could be a threat to public safety and that it would be too difficult to independently review so many petitions. DOJ’s proposal would restrict the Sentencing Commission’s plan to cover only those with extremely limited, non-violent criminal histories (and no conviction for obstruction of justice). According to some estimates, twenty thousand otherwise eligible people could be left out.


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