WASHINGTON — The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday voted to make recent guidelines lowering prison sentences for most federal drug offenses fully retroactive to all currently serving federal sentences under the guidelines.
As BuzzFeed reported earlier this week, the question before the commission was whether approximately 50,000 drug offenders serving time currently will be able to petition a judge to review their sentences according to the new standards. The Justice Department had opposed making the changes fully retroactive.
The commission unanimously voted yes Friday to make the decision retroactive, although the decision will not allow for release of any prisoners until Nov. 1, 2015. The approximately 50,000 people affected represent around 25% of the total federal prison population — approximately 210,000 convicts.
"This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach," Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said in a statement. "It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."
According to a statement from the commission, "Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015."
The delay, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimum's Mary Price, was made, per the commissioners, in order "give judges and prosecutors time to assess public safety," as decisions on "dangerousness" will need to be individualized assessments.
"Today, seven people unanimously decided to change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences," FAMM President Julie Stewart said in a statement. "FAMM commends the U.S. Sentencing Commission for its boldness, as well as federal judges, members of Congress, reform groups, and the more than 60,000 letter writers who joined with FAMM to demand that the Commission grant full retroactivity."
In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said:
"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. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."