Recent years have seen the pendulum swing in the “war on drugs” that began in the 1970’s and reached fervor pitch in the 1980’s. Last summer, Attorney General Eric Holder proclaimed that the United States Justice Department would no longer pursue or impose “draconian” mandatory minimum drug sentences against non-violent or low-level drug offenders. In March, Holder testified before the United States Sentencing Commission, endorsing the Commission’s plan to reduce base level drug trafficking offenses and thereby reduce federal drug trafficking sentences by an average of 18.8 percent.
Just a few days ago, the Sentencing Commission issued a press release that could be big news–and big relief–for federal inmates currently serving time for drug trafficking. The Commission not only voted to reduce base level offenses and sentencing, but also to apply those sentence reductions retroactively.
The Commission’s plan must first be approved by Congress, but if the legislature approves the sentencing guidelines and the Commission’s unanimous vote to allow retroactive application, it could mean reduced sentences and release from prison for thousands of federal inmates.
If Congress disapproves the amended sentencing guidelines, it must do so by November 1, 2014. However, if Congress allows the amendments, those serving sentences for drug trafficking should not expect to walk out the door in time for Thanksgiving this year. While the reduction in sentencing would begin at that time, the retroactive application of a reduced sentence would not take effect for another year–until November 1, 2015.
The reason for the delay is to give the government a chance to review individual cases. If an inmate’s release would be a threat to public safety, the retroactive sentence reduction would not apply to him or her.
Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission calls the amendment and its application a “measured approach” that “educes prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
According to the Commission, the amended sentencing guidelines could have a significant impact in reducing prison overcrowding, which currently exceeds capacity by approximately 32 percent. If the amendment is allowed to pass, it could reduce the sentences of up to 46,290 federal inmates by an average of 25 months each. The anticipated reduction, says the Commission, would eventually save up to 79,740 bed years.
These sentencing guidelines pertain to federal drug crimes rather than those prosecuted by the states. Oklahoma is notorious for having some of the toughest drug sentencing in the nation, with life sentences possible for even relatively minor drug offenses. It is unclear whether Oklahoma will follow the federal government’s lead in pursuing sentencing reduction for drug crimes under state jurisdiction. However, in a state plagued by prison overcrowding and understaffing, it would be wise to at least consider alternatives to mandatory minimums.