DOJ-backed proposal would cut drug sentences of up to 20,000 prisoners. That’s another good step

by Meteor Blades –


Sally Yates, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia shown here at a 2009 press conference, testified on the government’s proposal to reduce thousands of drug sentences retroactively Tuesday attribution: Cherokee Tribune

About 101,000 of the inmates held in the federal prison system are there for violations of the nation’s ridiculous drug laws. Slightly more than half of them—55 percent—are serving terms of 10 years or more. But a fifth of them could see their slam time reduced by an average of 23 months if a proposal by the United States Sentencing Commission unveiled Tuesday is approved in July. The commission sets guidelines for federal offenders. The Justice Department supports the plan. Sally Yates, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels testified in favor of it at a hearing on the subject in Washington, D.C., Tuesday:

“We believe that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders that has resulted in significant prison overcrowding, and that imprisonment terms for those sentenced pursuant to the old guideline should be moderated to the extent possible consistent with other policy considerations,” Yates said.

In a press release, Attorney General Eric Holder said:

“Under the department’s proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the Commission in April. Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.”

In April, the commission approved a proposal to reduce sentences for drug crimes based on the quantities involved. It is estimated that that proposal would cut 11 months off the average new drug sentence. That new proposal would apply a retroactive sentence reduction to thousands of prisoners. If it is approved, it could mean a heavy workload at the Justice Department. According to commission calculations, some 51,000 inmates could be eligible, Yates said, and as many as 60,000 inmates could file applications for reduced sentences. Each of those would have to be thoroughly examined.

The reduced sentences would only be approved for individuals who had not been given a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense, a sentencing enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon, an enhancement for using, threatening or directing the use of violence, an enhancement for engaging in an aggravating role in the main offense, or an enhancement for obstruction or attempted obstruction of justice.

In a May 27 letter to the commission’s co-chairs, researchers said that reducing sentences of half the imprisoned federal drug offenders would save the government 83,525 “bed years,” a measure of what it costs to keep one person incarcerated for a year. At $30,000 a year per prisoner, that would save the Justice Department about $2.4 billion.

Under the current structure of drug law and sentencing, less time behind bars for non-violent offenders is most assuredly in the nation’s interest. But, ultimately, we should go a good deal further by reforming drug law and related sentencing from stem to stern. Hundreds of thousands of drug-offenders’ lives—and the lives of their kin and other loved ones—have been ruined by these draconian and utterly inappropriate prison terms, made worse by the racial bias in the criminal justice system, in general, and in the sentencing guidelines, in particular, despite reform of the cocaine sentencing disparity. The sooner that deeper reform comes, the better for us all.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos


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