A proposal before the U.S. Sentencing Commission would take an
average of 23 months off prison terms being served by drug
offenders, making retroactive an amendment to sentencing guidelines
passed earlier this year.
The Justice Department, however, urged the commission at a public
hearing last month to approve an amendment that would narrow
eligibility to about 20,000 inmates.
The lower number would exclude offenders with a record of violence
and those caught with large quantities of drugs.
The department proposed the lower number to win the support of
federal prosecutors, the majority of whom do not want a shortening
of drug sentences they previously obtained, a source familiar with
the process said.
But Justice Department leaders, known proponents of sentencing
reform, have been meeting with the commission since the testimony,
privately weighing proposals that would include more inmates.
Advocates of sentencing reform say the federal government has been
slow to adopt policies already in place in many states, but the tide
appears to be shifting.
"It is as if all the branches of government woke up this year and
figured out something that had to be done about the problems
associated with overincarceration," said Mary Price, general counsel
for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Support for efforts to reduce sentences has grown in Congress and
the Obama administration as U.S. crime rates have declined
dramatically from levels three decades ago.
Opponents include law enforcement officers and some lawmakers, who
warn that reducing sentences could cause crime rates to rise.
At the state level, including such conservative places as Texas,
sentences for drug offenders have been cut to address overcrowding
in prisons and make budget cuts possible.
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Since the lowering of sentences in states has not led to higher
crime rates, federal reform efforts have recently gained speed.
Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo in August 2013 telling
federal prosecutors they should no longer pursue mandatory minimum
sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
A bill in Congress that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences
for nonviolent drug offenders has strong bipartisan support,
including from conservative Senator Mike Lee, who sponsored the
Price said it would be "tremendous" if the Sentencing Commission
votes to end sentences early for federal drug offenders.
The amendment would likely go into effect Nov. 1.
(Reporting By Julia Edwards; Editing by Steve Olofsky)
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