A federal agency unanimously approved a proposal Friday could see some 46,000 inmates with drug convictions released from prison early. The change makes retroactive an amendment passed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission earlier this year to reduce overly draconian drug sentences — a move that the Commission’s chair, Judge Patti B. Saris, called a modest but important step toward fixing the “urgent” problem of prison overcrowding while many wait for Congress to fix the law.
Advocates cheered the 7–0 vote as a major win for humane sentencing — one that is likely to impact more prisoners than most amendments by the Sentencing Commission.
“Today, seven people unanimously decided to change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences,” same Families Against Mandatory Minimums President Julie Stewart.
The original amendment unanimously passed in April adjusted the guidelines that federal judges consult when sentencing defendants. When a mandatory minimum sentence doesn’t apply to a case (as it often does) and bind a judge to an exact sentence, the judge turns to a set of guidelines known as the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines use the same overly punitive calculus that is the basis for mandatory minimum drug sentences, so both of these schemes have been held responsible for inflating the federal prison population by almost 800 percent percent since 1980.
The change by the U.S. Sentencing Commission only corrects a small part of this scheme. It amends a part of the guidelines that called for even longer sentences than comparable mandatory minimums. But even that small change will likely reduce the sentences of tens of thousands of drug prisoners. Going forward, the Commission estimated the change could affect some 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants.
The retroactive part of this amendment will not be automatic. To have their sentences reduced, those 46,000 inmates eligible for sentencing reductions would have to go before a judge, who would decide whether to grant them all or some of the sentencing reduction in the new guidelines. If all the judges granted the full reduction, inmates would see an average of 23 months shaved off their sentences, or 18.4 percent of their full sentence, according to Commission estimates (initial estimates also suggested more than 51,000 prisoners could be released. But the estimate was lowered at Friday’s meeting due to the delayed start date of November, 2015.).
This would also save the Bureau of Prisons the equivalent of 83,525 “bed years” (cost of housing one inmate for one year) over the course of many years. The Commission estimated that 395 of these inmates would die behind bars if they were not given this opportunity for early release.
These requests to reduce sentences would not come all at once. Some inmates — an estimated 8,000 — would be eligible to go before a judge immediately when the change goes into effect in 2015. But the remainder would become eligible to seek those sentencing reductions over a period of years, depending on when they were sentenced and the length of their original sentence. Although this would undoubtedly placed a burden on judges, those who testified before the Sentencing Commission in June on this issue called it courts’ “burden to bear” and that granting inmates retroactive relief is a “moral issue.”
In fact, many federal judges have expressed vocal outrage over schemes that bind them to sentencing low-level defendants like kingpins. That fundamental scheme hasn’t been changed by today’s fix. Since the mid-1980s, these drug sentencing laws have placed an over-emphasis on quantities of drugs rather than a defendant’s role in the crime. That means that a person involved in an offense that involved 50 grams of methamphetamine could get 40 years in prison, regardless of whether they served as mastermind of the deal or a low-level courier of money.
The Sentencing Commission and the U.S. Justice Department would both like to see this scheme changed. But for that, they have to wait for an act of Congress, since even the Sentencing Guidelines are tied to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players,” Saris said in January.