Nearly 50,000 Current Federal Prisoners Will Have Their Drug Sentences Reduced

Nearly 50,000 federal prisoners will receive a two level drug reduction that on average will result in more than two year reductions of their original sentences.

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The Federal Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to retroactively apply the Attorney General’s recent decision to grant two level drug reductions in federal drug cases to achieve greater fundamental fairness for those already sentenced. Although the Sentencing Commission states that federal judges may apply the new two level lower guideline range in older cases, there is no requirement that federal judges do so. In fact because of the significant number of current federal prisoners who were sentenced under harsh federal guideline ranges, there will likely be a backlog of cases even for those who should be released under the new drug provisions.

Though the Commission states that fairness is the over-riding consideration for the retroactive federal drug sentence reductions, a look at the Commission’s memorandum announcing the decision gives other reasons.

1. The Federal Bureau of Prisons population exceeds capacity by around 32%. Under today’s change addressing this problem, the Commission estimates that 46,290 offenders would be eligible to have their cases reviewed by a judge to determine if their sentences should be reduced;
2. Offenders eligible for a reduction could have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months, or 18.8%.
3. They would still serve 108 months, on average.
4. Over time, these sentence reductions could result in a savings of up to 79,740 bed years (a bed year is the equivalent of one federal prisoner occupying a prison bed for a year).

What the Commission is really saying is that because the federal prison system is now jammed by nearly a third over its actual capacity due to the harsh federal sentencing guidelines which the Commission created, the Commission now needs to save a few thousand bed years and this seems like a sensible way to do it. It’s not about fair sentencing; it’s about clearing the federal prisons for the next war on American citizens – not one hopes, another futile war on drugs.

For far too long the federal sentencing guidelines have needlessly destroyed the lives of our fellow Americans. It’s good that the sentencing commission as well as politicians from both parties finally agree that federal drug sentences were too harsh for too long.

Yet what does this say about the cowardly federal judges who did not have the courage to sentence federal drug defendants to treatment rather than punishment at the time of the original sentencing hearings? What does this say about the craven federal prosecutors who argued for ever more prison time for nonviolent drug crimes even when it was firmly established that prison would be of no benefit to the defendants nor for society?

More than anything that can be bought or sold, in life what matters most is time. Time to spend in the countess ways that makes each of our lives worth living. And it was time that was stolen from these defendants. How will the lives of those needlessly imprisoned ever be made complete? The least these federal prosecutors and judges can do is to set new sentencing hearings for each of these men with all deliberate speed as if that hearing were for someone they knew from their own neighborhood or from their own family.

 

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