In a much anticipated move, the US Sentencing Commission last Friday voted unanimously to retroactively apply previously approved reductions in federal sentencing guidelines to federal drug war prisoners already serving their sentences. The move means more than 46,000 federal prisoners will be able to apply for sentence reductions.
It's not going to be a flood of inmates suddenly walking out of federal prisons. Prisoners will not be able to seek sentence cuts until November 1 and none will be released before November 1, 2015. Those cuts will average about two years, turning what are currently average 11-year sentences to average nine-year sentences.
It is not quite a done deal. Congress has until November 1 this year to move to block it, but there appears to be little sign of any significant effort underway to do so.
The move is the latest in an effort by the Sentencing Commission to reduce the excesses of drug sentencing resulting from harsh laws passed mostly in the 1980s. It comes as the federal prison population continues to expand, even as state prison populations have begun to shrink following the enactment of sentencing reforms at the state level.
Before the Commission acted, it opened the issue to public comment, and the response indicated intense interest in making the move. The Commission received some 65,000 letters during the comment period, the vast majority endorsing the proposed change. Commenters included nearly a dozen US senators and representatives, including members of both the House and the Senate judiciary committees, all of them in support of the move, as well as federal judges, civil liberties, civil rights, and sentencing and drug reform groups.
According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, there are 100,549 people serving federal time for drug offenses, accounting for nearly half (49.7%) of all federal prisoners. The next two biggest categories are weapons offenses (15.7%) and immigration offenses (10.4%).
The Sentencing Commission acted in April to redress harsh prison sentences by reducing the base offense levels in drug quantity tables in the federal sentencing guidelines so that drug offenses are scored lower in the federal sentencing grid. That reduces the length of possible sentences for a given offense under the guidelines.
"The Commission has the statutory duty to ensure that the guidelines minimize the likelihood that the federal prison population will exceed capacity," Judge Saris explained. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991" and high prison costs "are reducing the resources available for federal prosecutors and law enforcement, aid to state and local law enforcement, crime victim services, and crime prevention programs -- all of which promote public safety," she added.
"Many of the same factors which led us to vote in April to reduce drug guidelines support making those reductions retroactive," Saris continued. "The same changes in the guidelines and laws I mentioned earlier that made the lower guideline levels more appropriate prospectively also make lower guideline levels appropriate for those offenders already in prison, most of whom were convicted after many of these statutory and guideline changes were already in place. In addition, retroactive application of the amendment would have a significant impact on reducing prison costs and overcapacity, which was an important purpose of the amendment, and the impact would come much more quickly than from a prospective change alone."
The Sentencing Commission's action was greeted with cheers from the drug reform and sentencing reform communities.
"The Sentencing Commission has promoted fundamental fairness by making its amendment retroactive, ensuring that sentence dates do not determine sentence lengths," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "This vote reflects an historic shift in the decades-long war on drugs, which has filled half of federal prison cells with people convicted of drug offenses. That war has come at a ruinous cost for all Americans, but particularly for communities of color. Not only has there been an enormous financial cost to the public, but there is little evidence to suggest that excessively punitive federal drug policies have improved public safety," he said.
"Retroactive application of the drug guidelines amendment is an important step toward addressing the unjust racial disparities produced through federal sentencing policies as well," Mauer added. "Because drug law enforcement has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos, reduced drug penalties will help to mitigate the effect of harsh sentencing policies on communities of color."
"It makes little sense, of course, to reform harsh sentencing laws proactively but not retroactively," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's what politicians do when they're scared of allowing people out of prison early. The Sentencing Commission really had no choice but to rectify the moral absurdity of keeping people locked up based on sentences that are no longer the law. What they did today was right and just."
The Sentencing Project's Mauer told the Chronicle Tuesday he thought it unlikely that Congress would attempt to block the reform.
"I have not heard of any significant opposition that is developing," he said. "My guess is that since it was a unanimous recommendation from the commission and that this is an election year and members have that on their minds, I'm optimistic there won't be any serious threat of this not going through."
Still, prisoners, their friends, families, and supporters will be waiting for that November deadline for congressional action to pass before they exhale. But it does look as if the federal government has taken a rather significant step in reversing some of the worst excesses of the drug war.