Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that the Justice Department would formally support a proposal under consideration by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to allow certain individuals serving time in federal prison for nonviolent drug offenses to be eligible for reduced sentences.
The Commission—which sets the guidelines for sentences imposed on federal criminal defendants—approved a proposal in April to lower, by two levels, the base offense associated with various drug quantities involved in drug trafficking crimes. Next month, the Commission will vote on whether the change, which is estimated to reduce the average sentence by 23 months, should be applied retroactively to individuals who are already in prison.
The department is proposing that the Commission make the revised guidelines retroactive for individuals who lack significant criminal histories and whose offenses did not include aggravating factors, such as the possession of a dangerous weapon or the use of violence. This approach is consistent with the department’s overall criminal justice reform efforts, which seek to reserve the harshest penalties for the most serious criminals who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
“Under the department’s proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the Commission in April,” Holder said. “Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.”
The department’s position in favor of applying the revised guidelines retrospectively in some cases was conveyed Tuesday during a formal hearing of the Commission. Sally Yates, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels testified on behalf of the department.
“We believe that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders that has resulted in significant prison overcrowding, and that imprisonment terms for those sentenced pursuant to the old guideline should be moderated to the extent possible consistent with other policy considerations,” Yates said. Under the plan supported by the department, Yates added, “retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history and did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending.”