Tens of thousands of federal inmates serving time for drug crimes may be eligible for early release under a cost-cutting proposal adopted Friday that would dramatically reduce the nation’s prison population over time.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which earlier this year voted to substantially lower recommended sentences for drug-dealing felons, voted unanimously to retroactively apply that change to prisoners now behind bars.
More than 46,000 inmates, including many who already have served a decade or longer in prison, would be eligible to seek early release under the commission’s decision. A judge would review the case of each prisoner seeking to get out early to decide if the release would jeopardize public safety. The releases would start in November 2015 and be phased in over a period of years.
The commission, an independent panel that sets sentencing policy, estimates sentences would be cut by an average of 25 months.
“The magnitude of the change, both collectively and for individual offenders, is significant,” said commission chairwoman Patti Saris, a federal judge in Massachusetts.
Advocates of the early-release plan say it would cut prison costs — nearly one-half of the federal prison population is locked up for drug crimes — and scale back some of the harsh sentences imposed during the country’s war on drugs. Prisoner-advocacy groups immediately trumpeted the change, calling it a matter of fundamental fairness.
Congress has until November to voice opposition to the commission’s plan, though advocates consider that unlikely. Courts at that point could begin considering petitions from prisoners seeking to get out of prison. Early releases wouldn’t begin until a year later.