Sentencing Commission Votes to Reduce Thousands of Prison Sentences

George Lavender

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Thousands of prisoners could be released from prison sooner than expected, after the US Sentencing Commission unanimously voted on Friday to allow some sentences to be retroactively reduced. 

In April the commission voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for future drug offenses, a move which they estimated will reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 prisoners within five years. Reuters reported the change in April:

The commission unanimously recommended reducing the sentence dictated by the quantity of the drug by two levels, or an average of 11 months. For example, someone caught with 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of heroin would serve 51 to 63 months rather than 63 to 78 months.

Friday’s decision extended those same guidelines to people already serving a prison sentence; an estimated 46,000 prisoners. Those eligible for release under the plan will first have their cases reviewed by a judge to determine whether they pose a risk to public safety.” In a press release, Judge Patti B Saris, said the proposal, reduces prison costs and populations” while safeguarding public safety.” 

The decision follows other initiatives aimed at reducing the federal prison population and lowering sentences, particularly for drug offenses, a stated objective of the Department of Justice. In May, the department began notifying federal prisoners of new opportunities for seeking clemency.

While these measures have received bipartisan support they have also faced opposition. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has previously said he is against lowering sentences. According to the LA Times, the early release of federal prisoners may also face opposition from prosecutors. 

Atty. Gen Eric H. Holder Jr. originally asked the commission, a group of judges and other lawyers who establish sentencing policies, to take a much narrower approach that would affect 20,000 inmates.

Although Holder has been a strong advocate of sentence reductions, his more cautious approach on this issue reflected strong opposition from some prosecutors to reductions in sentences they had personally overseen, according to a Justice Department official who asked for anonymity in order to discuss the internal deliberations.

But the Justice Department was able to negotiate a compromise that postponed the effective date for a year, allowing a slower, more deliberate approach to weed out inappropriate candidates, the official said.

The change is likely to diminish but not eliminate the opposition within the ranks. Some hard-liners still don’t like this outcome,” the official said. Continue reading…

Unless Congress votes to stop the measure, judges can start considering petitions for release from prisoners after November. No prisoners can be released until November 2015

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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