Almost half of the nation’s 100,000 federal drug inmates could spend less time behind bars following a decision Friday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Washington Post reports.
In a unanimous vote, the commission decided that 46,000 federal drug offenders in prison are eligible for reduced sentences, the report says. The decision, the Post says, makes retroactive an earlier change that had lightened potential punishments for most future drug offenders who are sentenced starting in November. The 46,000 inmates to whom the amendment applies can seek to have their cases reviewed by a judge, the report says.
The decision by the independent agency, which sets sentencing policies for federal crimes, means that prisoners could have their sentences reduced by an average of about two years, according to the Post. Congress has until November to vacate the decision, which would take effect next year, but there is little indication of opposition on Capitol Hill, the report says.
The vote signals a change in the country’s approach to criminal justice, particularly illegal drugs, in which the prevailing tough-on-drugs mentality is giving way to an increased emphasis on treatment and health, the report says. Democrats and some Republicans have supported cutting sentences for federal drug crimes, and an estimated 30 states have modified drug-crime penalties since 2009, the Post says.
It’s a thorny issue for citizens, lawmakers and advocacy groups alike, with the commission receiving more than 60,000 letters before Friday’s vote. But an overwhelming majority of voices favored the change, the report says.
“Advocates hailed the decision—which applies to most trafficking cases regardless of the drug—as among the most significant drug-law reforms in a generation, saying it will help reverse years of tough policies,” the Post reports.
But some federal prosecutors and judges oppose the decision, arguing that dangerous criminals could walk free and that judicial caseloads could skyrocket. Of particular concern, the report says, are those cases along the border in Texas, where the highest numbers of prisoners will be eligible for sentencing reductions.
Still, the commission’s vote represents a personal victory for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., “who has been at the forefront of efforts to reform the criminal justice system and has sought to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes,” the Post says.
Holder argues that an overhaul of sentencing guidelines is a civil rights issue. The New York Times has noted that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison, making up 13 percent of the nation’s population but 37 percent of the federal prison population.
The crack cocaine epidemic that flourished across the nation between the mid-1980s and early-90s has been named as a major reason for the disparity. Blacks received harsher sentences during the epidemic because crack cocaine, which attracted stiffer penalties, was more prevalent in black neighborhoods, while whites were more likely to use powdered cocaine, the Times says. Congress voted unanimously in 2010 to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and for powdered cocaine.