Sentencing Commission Grants Full Retroactivity
Will allow 46,290 people to petition for reduced sentences
Mike Riggs, FAMM Communications Director
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Washington, D.C. – The United States Sentencing Commission cast a historic vote today to allow 46,290 federal drug prisoners to petition for sentence reductions. This is the largest number of federal drug prisoners ever to benefit from a guideline amendment being made retroactive. Members of the Commission voted to make the amendment retroactive with no exclusions, though they did move the earliest possible release date from Nov. 1, 2014, to November 2015.
“Today, seven people unanimously decided to change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “FAMM commends the U.S. Sentencing Commission for its boldness, as well as federal judges, members of Congress, reform groups, and the more than 60,000 letter writers who joined with FAMM to demand that the Commission grant full retroactivity.”
While the Commission’s original estimate suggested that more than 51,000 prisoners would benefit from full retroactivity, the Commission’s decision to delay the initial release of some prisoners until Nov. 1, 2015, means that many prisoners who would’ve benefited from retroactivity on Nov. 1, 2014, will be released over the course of the next year at their regularly scheduled time.
“The delay will help to protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, in a Sentencing Commission press release.
Today’s vote follows a unanimous vote in April to lower federal drug guideline sentences for drug offenders sentenced on or after Nov. 1, 2014. When the Commission lowers sentences for future offenders, it has the option to make the reductions retroactive. Retroactivity allows prisoners to petition the federal courts for sentence reductions to match the sentences of incoming prisoners. The Commission voted to make lower crack cocaine sentences retroactive for more than 24,000 prisoners in 2007 and 2011.
“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Saris. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
The U.S. Sentencing Commission anticipates that full retroactivity will have the following impact on the federal prison population:
- 46,290 offenders would be eligible to have their cases reviewed by a judge to determine if their sentences should be reduced;
- Offenders eligible for a reduction could have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months, or 18.8%. They would still serve 108 months, on average.
- 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).
- Courts can begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners canbe released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.
The delay will give courts and probation officers a chance to handle the big influx of motions for sentence reductions before probation officers must turn their attention to supervising the prisoners who are released. No sentence reductions will be automatic, and each petition for early release will be thoroughly reviewed.
“This vote not only restores a sense of fairness to our criminal justice system, it’s going to restore lives and families,” said Stewart. “But as happy as we are today, we have to remember that this single act won’t undo decades of overly harsh sentencing policies. We need reform from the other branches of government. The House and the Senate must pass the Smarter Sentencing Act.”