U.S. to Reduce Prison Sentences for Tens of Thousands of Drug Offenders

By John Lavitt 07/21/14

The obscure U.S. Sentencing Commission has made a decision that could trigger a sea change in how we deal with drug offenders.

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Late last week, the United States Sentencing Commission made a historic decision to potentially reduce the drug sentences of over 51,000 drug offenders in federal prisons.

The decision mirrored a federal sea change taking place in regard to reforming drug sentencing in the criminal justice system. As the federal agency that sets criminal sentencing policies for judges, the commission voted on July 18 to allow inmates serving time for drug crimes to apply for reduced sentences. If approved by Congress and judges in the courtroom, it will be the largest such sentencing reduction in modern U.S. history.

The unanimous vote by the seven members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission will apply to the majority of nonviolent drug offenders in federal prisons. After examining the results of a similar 2007 decision solely focused on crack cocaine offenses, the commission found that the inmates released early posed no greater risk of committing more crimes than those who had served their full terms.

Judge Patti B. Saris, the chair of the commission, said in a statement that, “This amendment received unanimous support from the commissioners because it is a nuanced approach…It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."

Congress has until November 1 to disapprove of the commission’s decision. If lawmakers let the new rules stand, judges across the country can begin considering individual petitions from inmates for sentence reductions. The average reduction of the sentences would be about two years. According to a special rule added by the commissioners to the new program, no prisoners can be released until Nov. 1, 2015. Saris explained that the delay was intended to protect public safety by allowing time for judges to make an “appropriate consideration” of each petition.

The sea change reflects the views of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, who have said they strongly support a lesser emphasis on imprisoning low-level drug offenders. At around 216,000 inmates, the federal prison population currently exceeds capacity by 32% and the population is overflowing because of such low-level drug offenders.

Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, expressed complete support for the decision. “This vote will change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences,” she said.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.