The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted Friday to slash the sentences of 46,000 inmates serving time for drug offenses, the latest move by federal officials to ease decades-old policies that have clogged the nation's prisons.
If the decision is not blocked by Congress, nearly half of federal prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes will be eligible for sentence reductions averaging more than two years. It would take effect Nov. 1, 2015.
The commission decided in April to reduce future sentences. Friday's vote extends the same approach retroactively to those already serving time.
Atty. Gen Eric H. Holder Jr. originally asked the commission, a group of judges and other lawyers who establish sentencing policies, to take a much narrower approach that would affect 20,000 inmates.
Although Holder has been a strong advocate of sentence reductions, his more cautious approach on this issue reflected strong opposition from some prosecutors to reductions in sentences they had personally overseen, according to a Justice Department official who asked for anonymity in order to discuss the internal deliberations.
But the Justice Department was able to negotiate a compromise that postponed the effective date for a year, allowing a slower, more deliberate approach to weed out inappropriate candidates, the official said.
The change is likely to diminish but not eliminate the opposition within the ranks. "Some hard-liners still don't like this outcome," the official said.
Holder said Friday that he supports the new policy. "This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system," he said in a statement.
Judge Patti B. Saris, chairwoman of the commission, said: "This amendment received unanimous support from commissioners because it is a measured approach. It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."
No prisoner would be released until a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety.
The House and Senate would have to vote by Nov. 1 to block the plan. But there has been bipartisan support in both chambers for a
broad change in prison policies, and Obama administration officials do not expect a concerted effort to change the commission's new policy.
The movement to reform prison policies has been taken up by Holder with great enthusiasm. But it started in states, including conservative states such as Texas, whose budgets were suffering from the cost of prison construction and housing thousands of inmates.