New Sentencing Guidelines Could Shorten Drug Sentences for Thousands

For Immediate Release
Contact: Eric Ares (213) 228-0024
November 4, 2014

New Sentencing Guidelines Could Shorten Drug Sentences for Tens of Thousands of People Currently in Federal Prison 

Change is Latest Step to Reduce Mass Incarceration and Scale Back Failed Drug War  

Los Angeles, CA The Los Community Action Network (LA CAN) recently joined dozens of organizations across the U.S. to highlight changes to federal drug sentencing guidelines. On Saturday, November 1st, courts began considering petitions from incarcerated individuals for sentencing reductions. Thousands of people who are currently serving long, punitive drug-related sentences in federal prisons could be eligible to apply, although no one who benefits from this reform may be released for another year, or prior to November 1, 2015.  USSC estimates that close to 45,000 people currently behind bars would be eligible to have their cases reviewed to determine whether their sentences should be reduced. This change could save taxpayers billions of dollars and would reunite thousands of families with their loved ones.

“This is huge news for residents of Skid Row and South Los Angeles – where the failed War on Drugs has destroyed communities and lives for decades,” said LA CAN organizer General Dogon. “We still have a long way to go to fix this broken prison system, but this is a big step forward.”

The changes that took effect on Saturday follow a July 2014 vote by the United States Sentencing Commission to retroactively apply an amendment approved by the same government panel in April 2014 that lowers Federal Guidelines for sentencing persons convicted of drug trafficking crimes. Federal judges may now begin referencing the reduced guidelines in the course of sentencing persons convicted of drug trafficking crimes and individuals who were sentenced under the old drug sentencing guidelines may begin petitioning a federal judge for a hearing to evaluate whether their sentence can be shortened to match the reduced guidelines. The underlying drug guidelines amendment that shortened the length of drug sentencing guidelines was approved by the United States Sentencing Commission and submitted to Congress for review in April.

The United States Sentencing Commission’s decision reflects efforts underway in Congress and by the Obama Administration to reform federal drug sentencing laws, as well as a broader effort to adapt federal policy to overwhelming public support for reforming drug laws, ending marijuana prohibition, and reducing collateral consequences of a drug conviction. In 2010 Congress unanimously passed legislation reducing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Bipartisan legislation reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, the Smarter Sentencing Act, has already passed out of committee this year and is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. Attorney General Eric Holder has made numerous changes this year, including directing U.S. Attorneys to charge certain drug offenders in a way that makes ensures they won’t be subject to punitive mandatory minimum sentencing.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mandatory minimums have significantly contributed to overcrowding and racial disparities in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The BOP operates at nearly 140 percent capacity – and is on track to use one-third of the Justice Department’s budget.  More than half of the prisoners in the BOP are serving time for a drug law violation. Even though African-Americans are no more likely than Whites to use or sell drugs, evidence shows they are far more likely to be prosecuted for drug law offenses and far more likely to receive longer sentences than Whites. With less than 5% of the world’s population – but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population – the U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of its own citizens.

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