In a decision released on Friday, the United States Sentencing Commission applied its April drug amendment – a comprehensive two-level reduction in guidelines sentencing for defendants in drug trafficking cases – retroactively without limitation, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., applauded the decision, saying that “applying this change retroactively is an important step toward responsibly addressing our unsustainable prison population. It will begin to ease dangerous prison overcrowding and improve public safety.”
When determining whether it should apply the drug amendment retroactively, the Sentencing Commission called upon the public to submit comments explaining their position on the issue. The Leadership Conference submitted comments in support of full retroactivity.
“By applying the amendment retroactively, the Commission has the opportunity to address the persistent problem of unfair sentencing in the U.S. justice system and to spearhead the movement towards a more just and equal society,” the comments state.
The effect of the Sentencing Commission’s decision is enormous. The Commission’s Office of Research and Data estimates that, over the course of 30 years, 46,290 offenders sentenced between October 1, 1991 and November 1, 2014 would be eligible to have their current sentence reduced. Of those offenders, 74 percent are Black or Hispanic, a figure that is indicative of the still-significant racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system.
In addition to impacting racial disparities, the Commission‘s own data demonstrate the massive economic benefits. Assuming an average bed-year cost of $28,948, total savings is projected to be nearly $2.3 billion. These savings can be used to improve prison facilities and probation services aimed at reducing recidivism as well as providing law enforcement with the resources they need to keep the public safe.
While the Commission has taken a great step toward fairness, there is still work to be done. Right now a bipartisan bill in Congress called the Smarter Sentencing Act would modernize drug sentencing policy, focus resources on violent offenders and public safety risks, and promote consistency with the Fair Sentencing Act.
“Our growing prison population is largely driven by inflexible and unfair drug mandatory minimums,” Leahy said in his statement. “I urge all Senators to join me in supporting reforms like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would restore judicial discretion by making modest reductions to certain mandatory minimums for drug crimes. The problems caused by mandatory minimum sentences are problems that Congress created, and only Congress can fix them.”