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46,000 Imprisoned Drug Offenders May Be Going Home Early

Nearly 25 percent of the federal prison population may be granted reduced sentences in a move meant to address high costs and overcrowding.
Photo by Cory Doctorow

More than 46,000 drug offenders in federal prison will be eligible for early release after the US Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Friday to reduce retroactively the sentencing guidelines under which they were incarcerated.

The seven members of the Sentencing Commission cited ballooning costs and overcrowded prisons, before voting to allow nearly 25 percent of the federal prison population to petition for reduced sentences.


“This amendment received unanimous support from commissioners because it is a measured approach,” Judge Patti 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.”

The Sentencing Commission estimates eligible inmates will have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months. It could also save up to 79,740 prison-bed years — each one equal to one federal prisoner occupying a prison bed for a year.

In April, the Sentencing Commission voted to lower federal sentencing guidelines for some drug cases, and since then it has been weighing whether or not to extend the new guidelines to current inmates. Federal prosecutors and law enforcement groups, such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), opposed both proposals.

'I have been doing this 23 years, and I’ve never seen a more significant vote that will impact a greater number of prisoners.'

“While the FOP believes that the new guidelines will certainly weaken the overall fight against drug traffickers, retroactive application of the guidelines will have an immediate and deleterious effect on public safety and the crime rates in our communities,” the chairman of the FOP’s legislative committee testified in June.

Sitting in the hearing room on Friday, family members of federal inmates clutched pictures of their loved ones and awaited the vote.


Kim Rice, a 40-year-old Washington, DC resident, was one. The father of her daughter has been in prison for 14 years on drug conspiracy charges. “He’s missing my daughter’s entire life,” she told VICE News. “It’s been really difficult.”

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She also has a fiancé who has served more than 11 years on drug conspiracy charges.

Many watching the hearing were part of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a criminal justice reform organization that, along with other groups, flooded the Sentencing Commission with more than 60,000 letters in support of the proposed rule.

FAMM has been pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing reform for years now, but until a recent bipartisan effort in Congress, as well as support from the Obama administration, there had been little progress.

“I’ve been doing this 23 years,” FAMM President Julie Stewart said after the hearing, “and I’ve never seen a more significant vote that will impact a greater number of prisoners.”

Opponents did win a few concessions. Judges will be allowed to begin considering cases on November 1, but no prisoners will be released until November 2015. The commission said the delay will give judges and the Justice Department time to prepare for the massive changes.

According to a Reuters report, the Justice Department had lobbied the Sentencing Commission to carve out an exemption that would have limited eligibility to roughly 20,000 federal inmates. However, the Commission largely rejected the proposal. In the end, the Commission’s amendment exempted roughly 5,000 inmates from the new rule.


In a statement, US Attorney General Eric Holder called the vote “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… At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately.”

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The rule could only be reversed if Congress passed a law blocking it before November 1, and President Barack Obama then declined to veto that law. Given Congress’s recent productivity and the White House’s opinion of Congress, that scenario is extremely unlikely.

Nova Marriott's husband has been in prison for 17 years on crack cocaine charges, and the new rule would shave only a few months off his sentence. Still, the Maryland woman was grateful for the ruling.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” she told VICE News. “He won’t benefit from it much, but every little bit helps.”

Follow CJ Ciaramella on Twitter: @cjciaramella

Photo via Flickr