WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of federal inmates serving time for drug crimes may be eligible for early release under a cost-cutting proposal adopted Friday that would dramatically reduce the nation’s prison population over time.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which earlier this year voted to substantially lower recommended sentences for drug-dealing felons, voted unanimously to retroactively apply that change to prisoners now behind bars.
More than 46,000 inmates, including many who have already served a decade or longer in prison, would be eligible to seek early release under the commission’s decision.
A judge would review the case of each prisoner seeking to get out early to decide whether the release would jeopardize public safety.
The releases would start in November 2015 and be phased in over a period of years.
The commission, an independent panel that sets sentencing policy, estimates sentences would be cut by an average of 25 months.
The magnitude of the change, both collectively and for individual offenders, is significant, said commission chairwoman Patti Saris, a federal judge in Massachusetts.
Advocates of the early release plan say it would cut prison costs – nearly one-half of the federal prison population is locked up for drug crimes – and scale back some of the harsh sentences imposed during the country’s war on drugs. Prisoner advocacy groups immediately trumpeted the change, calling it a matter of fundamental fairness.
This vote will change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences, said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The sentencing change comes amid a broader rethinking of criminal justice policy that the Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, has embraced.
With an eye toward addressing sentencing disparities rooted in the 1980s-era fight against crack cocaine, and cutting a prison population that’s roughly 32 percent above capacity, the Justice Department has issued new clemency criteria designed to encourage thousands of additional inmates to seek an early release.