U.S. Sentencing Commission Approves Retroactivity for Drug Offense Sentence Reductions
by Derek Gilna
It’s always hard for the federal government to admit its mistakes, especially when they have ruined tens of thousands of lives, devastated inner-city neighborhoods and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. But a recent vote by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make sentence reductions for certain non-violent drug offenders retroactive is certainly a step in the right direction.
The Commission’s July 18, 2014 decision will affect an estimated 20% of federal prisoners and thousands of defendants currently awaiting sentencing, by making retroactive a two-level reduction “in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders.” The Commission had voted in April to lower the sentencing guideline levels.
“This amendment received unanimous support from commissioners because it is a measured approach,” remarked Sentencing Commission Chairwoman Patti B. Saris. “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 Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), over 65,000 people submitted public comments to the Commission in support of applying the sentence guideline reductions retroactively.
“This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden of our overcrowded prison system,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., who had originally sought a more limited change to the sentencing guidelines.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the co-sponsors of the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 (S.1410), a bill pending in Congress that would provide additional sentencing relief, commented that the Commission’s vote was “an important step toward responsibly addressing our unsustainable prison population.”
Unless Congress acts to block the Sentencing Commission’s decision, eligible prisoners can begin filing motions to reduce their sentences starting November 1, 2014. Even if such motions are granted, however, no offenders will be released until at least one year after that date. The delay will give the Bureau of Prisons and the federal courts time to prepare for a flood of prisoners petitioning for reduced prison terms.
“More than 46,000 offenders would be eligible to seek sentence reductions in court,” the Commission announced. “These offenders’ sentences could be reduced by 25 months on average.”
With certain exceptions, the sentencing guideline changes will only apply to federal prisoners convicted of specified drug offenses whose base offense level was 13 to 37; they will not affect those who are serving mandatory minimums or were sentenced as career offenders.
Further, the Sentencing Commission’s retroactivity decision will not be an automatic process, just as sentence reductions for crack cocaine offenses were not automatic under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.26]. The Commission’s order is still subject to interpretation by the courts, which will decide if prisoners seeking relief are eligible for sentence reductions.
“Each drug offender is going to have to be evaluated individually in order to determine whether or not as a result of dangerousness or otherwise his or her sentence should be reduced,” said Commissioner and U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Jackson.
Sources: www.ussc.gov, www.nationallawjournal.com, www.famm.org, Los Angeles Times
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