The U.S. Sentencing Commission's recommendation reflects a policy
supported by the Obama administration to bring punishments for
low-level drug offenders in line with the severity of their crime.
Some Republicans in Congress say more lenient sentences would
reverse the drop in crime the United States has seen over recent
The commission unanimously recommended reducing the sentence
dictated by the quantity of the drug by two levels, or an average of
11 months. For example, someone caught with 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of heroin
would serve 51 to 63 months rather than 63 to 78 months.
Unless Congress votes to stop the amendment, it will go into effect
on November 1. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of
the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he opposes lowering
The amendment would not reduce penalties for drug traffickers with
the greatest drug quantities, and sentencing guidelines already take
into account whether the drug offense was combined with violence or
possession of a firearm.
"Quantity, while still an important proxy for seriousness, no longer
needs to be quite as central to the calculation," said Sentencing
Commission Chair Judge Patti Saris.
Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that the commission lower
sentences for drug offenders as it falls in line with his philosophy
of reducing spending on prisons and sentencing drug offenders more
justly in accordance with their crime, two goals he has launched a
review of the criminal justice system to address.
The Department of Justice estimates that the amendment would reduce
the federal prison population by roughly 6,550 inmates over five
years. In 2010, nearly half of 216,000 total federal inmates were
serving time for drug-related crimes.
Testifying before the Sentencing Commission in January, Holder urged
the group of seven to lower sentences based on drug quantities,
telling them it would help "rein in federal prison spending while
focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public
[to top of second column]
In drafting the amendment, the commission looked at the effects of a
2007 law lowering penalties for crack cocaine offenders. Their data
showed that those offenders who served shorter time after the law
passed were no more likely to return to federal prison than those
who served longer sentences.
But critics say that reducing sentences would weaken the leverage of
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys
Association and former drug czar under President George W. Bush,
said district attorneys will be weakened by lower sentencing at the
federal level because they often use the threat of tough federal
punishment as a tool to convince drug offenders who have witnessed
larger crimes to cooperate.
"They can use the leverage of the threat of harsher punishment in
order to solve murder cases and prosecute drug kingpins," Burns
(Reporting by Julia Edwards; editing by Lisa Shumaker)
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