Federal Agency Approves Early Release Of Some 46,000 Drug Prisoners

Source: NICOLE FLATOW/ThinkProgress.Org

A federal agency unanimously approved a proposal Friday could see some 46,000 inmates with drug convictions released from prison early. The change makes retroactive an amendment passed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission earlier this year to reduce overly draconian drug sentences — a move that the Commission’s chair, Judge Patti B. Saris, called a modest but important step toward fixing the “urgent” problem of prison overcrowding while many wait for Congress to fix the law.

Advocates cheered the 7-0 vote as a major win for humane sentencing — one that is likely to impact more prisoners than most amendments by the Sentencing Commission.

“Today, seven people unanimously decided to change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences,” same Families Against Mandatory Minimums President Julie Stewart.

The original amendment unanimously passed in April adjusted the guidelines that federal judges consult when sentencing defendants. When a mandatory minimum sentence doesn’t apply to a case (as it often does) and bind a judge to an exact sentence, the judge turns to a set of guidelines known as the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines use the same overly punitive calculus that is the basis for mandatory minimum drug sentences, so both of these schemes have been held responsible for inflating the federal prison population by almost 800 percent percent since 1980.

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