US Sentencing Commission Votes to Retroactively Apply Reduction in Drug Trafficking Sentences

The United States accounts for just five-percent of the world’s population. Its prisons, however, hold some 25-percent of the world’s prison population. The land of the free leads the developed world in the incarceration of its own citizens.

For years, activists and politicians have railed against seemingly ever-expanding state and federal corrections facilities, packed with mostly non-violent drug offenders. For as many years, political leaders have promised to do something about the swelling population of non-violent drug offenders. This summer, that rhetoric became reality.

On July 18, 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to retroactively apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most drug trafficking offenders. This means that many drug trafficking offenders currently incarcerated could be eligible for a reduction in their sentences as early as November 15, 2015. The action will allow some 46,290 persons incarcerated for federal drug crimes to petition for reductions in their sentences. It is believed to be the largest number of federal drug prisoners ever to benefit from a retroactive sentencing guideline amendment.

The United States Sentencing Commission is an independent agency in the judicial branch of the United States Federal Government. The Commission helps establish sentencing policies and practices in federal courts, advises and assists Congress and the executive branch in creating and implementing efficient criminal justice policies, and collects, analyzes, researches and distributes information regarding federal crimes and sentencing issues to the Congress, the executive branch, the courts and the public. Its recommendations must be approved by Congress and passed into law.

In April, the commission voted unanimously to amend the sentencing guidelines and lower, by two levels, the base offenses in the Drug Quantity Table across all drug types. What that means, in practical terms, is that federal drug offenders who are convicted after the effective date of the change will be subject to lighter prison sentences. The vote of the commission on July 18, 2014 to make the change retroactive means that drug offenders who have already been sentenced and are serving time in jail can petition for a reduction in their sentences.

The decision to make the amendment retroactive does not become effective until November 1, 2015. That means that inmates who would have benefited, for instance, from retroactivity on November 1, 2014, will have to serve the remainder of their sentences and will be released over the course of the next year at their previously scheduled discharge dates. In addition, even those inmates who are entitled to seek a reduction in their sentences must first seek judicial review of their cases prior to release. This will enable judges to evaluate whether an early release will pose a risk to public safety or is otherwise appropriate.

The most recent sentencing guideline change came about after a study of offenders who were released pursuant to a 2007 guidelines amendment which reduced sentences for crack cocaine offenders. The study showed that reducing sentences for these offenders had little to no effect on recidivism rates when compared to offenders who served out their original sentences. The change also came after overwhelming public and political pressure exerted on the commission during the public commentary period. Letters poured in from thousands of supporters including Senators, Congressmen, Federal District Court Judges and numerous agencies including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and the American Conservative Union Foundation.

If the Amendment is adopted, it is likely to have a major impact on the federal criminal justice system. Aside from the nearly 50,000 inmates who could be released from prison early if they are awarded sentence reductions, even those offenders at the front end of their sentences could see reductions at an average of 25 months. Over time, these reductions could save the federal government some $2.4 billion. The average one-year cost of housing an inmate in federal prison is $30,000 per inmate. The sentencing guideline amendment is expected to eliminate some 80,000 bed years of time served.

The guideline amendment will take effect on November 1, 2014, if Congress approves it.