Unanimous U.S. Sentencing Commission Vote Allows Retroactive Reduction in Drug Trafficking Sentences

Up to 50,000 federal drug offenders in prison may be eligible for reduced sentences beginning in November 2015.

Last week the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) approved an amendment to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively.

The proposal to reduce the guidelines applicable to the Drug Quantity Table by two levels, across all drug types, had been brought forth earlier this year and was unanimously approved by the Commission in April.

A public comment period followed the Commission’s vote, and over 60,000 public comments were received, including several from members of Congress, the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference, the Department of Justice, the Federal Public and Community Defenders, the Commission’s advisory groups, many advocacy groups, and law enforcement organizations.

The Commission stated that most of the comments received were supportive of the amendment, which is now before Congress for consideration. If Congress does not act to disapprove of the amendment by November 1, 2014, it will become effective on November 1, 2015.

“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

The Commission press release announcing the decision said 46,290 offenders would be eligible to have their cases reviewed by a judge to determine if their sentences should be reduced. Offenders eligible for a reduction could have sentences reduced by an average of 25 months, or 18.8 percent – although they would still serve an average of 108 months in prison.  The Commission estimated the reductions could result in a savings of up to 79,740 bed years.

The Commission stressed that “under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.”

Furthermore, the Commission chair Judge Saris said that “We listened very closely to the law enforcement community, and the amendment we voted for today seeks to address concerns about public safety.”

The Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder approved of the decision.

“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach,” Attorney General Holder stated.

Yet other law enforcement groups, such as the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) and the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA), did not approve of the Commission’s decision.

Dennis Boyd, executive director of NAAUSA, told The Washington Post, “We’re just disappointed…We were hoping for something different.”

“The U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision is trading public safety for incarceration cost-savings.   The Commission is unwittingly reducing the federal prison population while dumping the fall-out onto state and local penitentiaries. The spillage impact will be that federal drug offenders who are released early will inevitably become the burden of state and local authorities. The problem isn't solved; it's just shifted,” said FLEOA national president Jon Adler.

“Immigration continues to be the silent number one cause of capacity problems in federal prisons, yet somehow the U.S. Sentencing Commission's focus is on drug offenders and traffickers,” Adler continued.   

“The step the Commission is taking today is an important one,” Commission chair Judge Saris said, “but only Congress can bring about the more comprehensive reforms needed to reduce disparities, fully address prison costs and populations, and make the federal criminal justice system work better.”

Tags: drug trafficking, retroactive reduction

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