Attorney General Eric Holder is backing a recommendation that would shorten federal prison sentences for a majority of offenders convicted of drug trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The proposal, approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in July 2014, would cut the average sentence for drug dealers from 62 months to 51 months. It also would decrease the inmate population of the federal prison system by up to 6,500 inmates over five years, according to the Sentencing Commission.
The federal prison system is almost 40% above capacity, with nearly half of the 216,000 inmates serving sentences for drug-related crimes, statistics show.
In his testimony to the Sentencing Commission in March 2014, Holder said that adjusting sentencing ranges for drug offenses would “help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”
A similar reduction applied to crack cocaine crimes in 2007 did not affect recidivism rates for offenders given the shortened sentences, according to a Sentencing Commission study.
If Congress accepts the Sentencing Commission’s recommendation, courts could begin considering prisoners’ petitions for reduced sentences as of November 2014. However, prisoners would not be eligible for early release until November 2015.
Holder’s endorsement is in keeping with the recent push to reduce inmate populations and trim the associated costs. Holder already has called for the abolishment of mandatory minimum prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders, The New York Times reported. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a call for low-level drug offenders who were given lengthy federal prison sentences to apply for clemency.
The number of inmates in state and federal prisons peaked at more than 1.6 million in 2009 and has been decreasing ever since, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Still, in 2010, states and the federal government spent a combined $80 billion to incarcerate convicts, Holder said.
Placing such heavy reliance on putting offenders behind bars “is not just financially unsustainable – it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” he told commissioners.
Not everyone is supportive of the trend toward shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Virginia prosecutor Raymond Morrogh told the Sentencing Commission that budgetary concerns are not a good reason to go easier on criminals.
It “doesn’t seem fair to both victims of crime and the millions of families in America victimized every year by the scourge of drugs in America’s communities,” Morrogh, director-at-large of the National District Attorneys Association, said in his written testimony.