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U.S. Sentencing Commission Greenlights Retroactive Sentence Reductions

A vote by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) on August 24, 2023, potentially makes thousands of prisoners eligible for reduced sentences who were sentenced as first-time offenders.

That’s because USSC members voted for retroactive application of an amendment to U.S. Sentencing guidelines that significantly reduced the offense level assigned to defendants with no previous convictions.

The decision marked the first time since 2018 that USSC had a quorum of commissioners, all of whom were appointed by Pres. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D). In April 2023 they voted for the Sentencing Guidelines change—excepting those convicted of terrorism, sex offenses, murder or manslaughter, serious bodily injury, weapons or hate crimes.

All others will benefit from Amendment 821, which USSC passed unanimously in April 2023, limiting the impact of “status points” added to a defendant’s criminal history score for offenses committed while on probation or parole or any other form of supervision. The changes took effect when Congress’ 180-day review period ended on November 1, 2023. As a result, courts could begin considering petitions for sentence reductions, potentially leading to reduced prison terms effective February 1, 2024.

Not all commissioners were on board with extending the amendment’s benefits retroactively, pointing to the large administrative burden the move will create for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which has 85,000 affected prisoners. But most of those are not eligible for sentence reductions; a July 2023 Impact Analysis estimated that retroactive application of Amendment 821 would grant just 11,495 BOP prisoners with status points an average sentence reduction of 11.7%. Another 7,272 prisoners with zero status points could see an average sentence reduction of 17.6%.

Still U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, who chairs the Commission, said that the decision “brings hope to thousands of currently incarcerated people and their families…. What is unjustified in the future, was unjustified in the past, and must be rectified now.”

USSC also finalized policy priorities for the amendment year ending on May 1, 2024, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA). Commissioners said they would review guidelines concerning acquitted conduct for sentencing purposes, a nod to the recent denial of several petitions related to acquitted conduct by the U.S. Supreme Court. The effectiveness of specific BOP practices in achieving sentencing goals will also be evaluated.

Additionally, commissioners will continue to examine career offender guidelines, updating recommendations outlined in a 2016 report to Congress, Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements. Judge Reeves added that the group “look[s] forward to continued input from the public as we work through this year’s priorities.”  


Additional source: Law 360

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