Reducing Sentences of Federal Drug Offenders Could Save Billions, Says U.S. Sentencing Commission Report

Post Date: May 6, 2014

Making “All Drugs Minus Two” Retroactive Could Save More Than $2.4 Billion

MEDIA CONTACT: Mike Riggs, (202) 822-6706, mriggs@famm.org
FAMM MEMBER CONTACT: Andrea Strong, (202) 822-6700, famm@famm.org

(Click here to tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make All Drugs Minus Two retroactive.) 

Proposed changes to the federal drug sentencing guidelines would likely save billions if made retroactive, according to a memo released Tuesday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The memo stems from an amendment that the Commission unanimously passed in April. Projected to lower federal drug sentences by an average of 11 months, the amendment adjusts the Drug Quantity Table that judges use to help determine a sentence. The Drug Quantity Table is divided into levels. Level 18, for example, recommends a sentence of 27-33 months  for a drug offense involving between 10 and 20 grams of methamphetamine. Under the amended guidelines, the same quantity of methamphetamine would be sentenced two levels below, at level 16, which in turn recommends a sentence of 21-27 months. FAMM calls the amendment passed in April “All Drugs Minus Two,” because all drug quantities will be moved down two sentencing levels (Read our FAQ on the amendment). While All Drugs Minus Two will go into effect on November 1, 2014, as of right now, it will only affect federal drug defendants sentenced after that date. On Tuesday, the Commission released its analysis of who would be affected by making the amendment apply to current prisoners (called “retroactivity”), and to what extent their sentences would be lower.

You can read that memo here [PDF]. Among the key findings:

1.) There are roughly 217,000 prisoners in the federal system, of which 100,888 are drug offenders. Of those 100,888 drug offenders, only 51,145 would be eligible to seek  a sentence reduction. That said,

  • a sentence reduction is not automatic: Eligible prisoners will have to petition the sentencing judge, and prosecutors will review and weigh in on the request. Judges are required to evaluate every request in light of the danger the prisoner would pose to public safety if released early, before granting a petition.   
  • eligible prisoners who do not pose a threat to public safety will not be released en masse. According to the USSC impact analysis, prisoners whose petitions are granted are “projected to be eligible for release at various times over a period of more than 30 years.”

2.) The total savings of All Drugs Minus Two could be upwards of $2.4 billion. According to the Commission, modifying the sentences of all 51,145 eligible prisoners would save the Bureau of Prisons 83,525 bed years (a “bed year” is the cost of incarcerating one prisoner for one year).  The current cost of incarcerating one federal prisoner for one year is $28,893.40. Multiple that cost by the number of bed years saved, and you get $2,413,287,825 at today’s prices (which will inflate over time).

3.) The average federal drug sentence for those currently incarcerated is 125 months (or 10 years and five months). Making All Drugs Minus Two retroactive would reduce the average sentence of those currently incarcerated by 23 months. This lower sentence of 102 months is still a remarkably long sentence; longer on average or comparable to those for manslaughter (59 months), assault (33 months) sexual abuse (109 months); robbery (77 months); arson (93 months); and firearms offenses (83 months).

4.) The USSC estimates that under retroactivity, 395 offenders could be released who would otherwise die in prison if the amendment were not made retroactive. Sixty-nine percent of prisoners would see a sentence reduction between 0 and 24 months; 22 percent of prisoners would see a reduction of roughly 25-48 months. 

5.) In something of a trial run of the current proposed effort, the Commission lowered sentences for crack cocaine offenses by two levels in 2007 and made that change retroactive, effective March 2008. The Commission studied whether early release correlated with increased rates of recidivism and concluded: “There is no evidence that offenders whose sentence lengths were reduced pursuant to retroactive application of the Crack Cocaine Amendment had higher recidivism rates than a comparison group of crack cocaine offenders who were released before the effective date of the 2007 Crack Cocaine Amendment and who served their full prison terms…”

“On November 1, All Drug Minus Two will ensure that drug guidelines no longer exceed the mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress,” says Mary Price, general counsel for FAMM. “Making that change retroactive is the right thing to do for so many reasons. Retroactivity will ensure that prisoners whose sentences were needlessly inflated will be treated the same as those sentenced after Nov. 1 for the very same crime. It would be a cruel irony to fix the problem of over-sentencing only to deny relief to the thousands who have suffered its consequences. It will also make a real impact on the federal prison population, which hovers at nearly 40 percent above capacity and which siphons funds needed for crime prevention, detection and prosecution.”

Learn more about All Drugs Minus Two here