Panel supports early release for 46K drug felons

Commission seeks to curb prison overpopulation
Associated Press
Jul 19, 2014

 

Tens of thousands of federal inmates serving time for drug crimes may be eligible for early release under a cost-cutting proposal adopted Friday that would dramatically reduce the nation's prison population over time.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which earlier this year voted to substantially lower recommended sentences for drug-dealing felons, voted unanimously to retroactively apply that change to prisoners now behind bars.

More than 46,000 inmates, including many who have already served a decade or longer in prison, would be eligible to seek early release under the commission's decision. A judge would review the case of each prisoner seeking to get out early to decide if the release would jeopardize public safety. The releases would start in November 2015 and be phased in over a period of years.

The commission, an independent panel that sets sentencing policy, estimates sentences would be cut by an average of 25 months.

"The magnitude of the change, both collectively and for individual offenders, is significant," said commission chairwoman Patti Saris, a federal judge in Massachusetts.

Advocates of the early-release plan say it would cut prison costs — nearly one-half of the federal prison population is locked up for drug crimes — and scale back some of the harsh sentences imposed during the country's war on drugs. Prisoner advocacy groups immediately trumpeted the change, calling it a matter of fundamental fairness.

"This vote will change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences," Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement.

The sentencing change comes amid a broader rethinking of criminal justice policy that the Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, has embraced.

With an eye toward addressing sentencing disparities rooted in the 1980's-era fight against crack cocaine, and cutting a prison population that's roughly 32 percent above capacity, the Justice Department has issued new clemency criteria designed to encourage thousands of additional inmates to seek an early release. Last year, Holder directed federal prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences — which limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter sentences — for nonviolent drug offenders.

"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," Holder said in a statement.

The proposal adopted Friday is actually more expansive than one advanced by Holder last month, which would have applied to roughly 20,000 drug inmates who have limited criminal pasts and who did not use a weapon during their crime.

Though sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, judges still rely heavily on them in deciding on prison sentences. The guidelines recommend sentences that factor in the types and quantities of the drugs. The commission in April voted to lower recommended sentences across all drug types, meaning, for instance, that a cocaine package of a given size would now be linked to a shorter range of punishment than before.

Congress has until November to voice opposition to the commission's plan, though advocates consider that unlikely. Courts at that point could begin considering petitions from prisoners seeking to get out of prison. Early releases wouldn't begin until a year later.

This is not the first time the sentencing commission has supported an early release for drug offenders. In 2011, the commission voted to retroactively apply a law that reduced the sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine.

Commission members said they believe they have taken steps to ensure public safety, such as requiring a judge to sign off on a defendant's early release. They also voted to delay the release until next year to give judges enough time to consider whether defendants are good candidates to be let out early.

Among those attending Friday's hearing was Adrienne Willis of Camp Springs, Md., who said her 47-year-old son, Bernard Gibson, might be among those who benefit. She said he's already spent 18 years at a federal prison in Virginia for a drug-dealing conspiracy and still has more time to serve.

"I thought that prison was supposed to rehabilitate people," she said. "If someone's been in prison for 18 years and they're not rehabilitated, whose fault is that?"

Some, though not all, judges have joined advocacy groups in championing the change.

"Even though retroactivity and individualized assessment for all eligible persons is time intensive and administratively burdensome, it is the right thing to do so that we can again ensure that our criminal justice system is fair to all concerned," U.S District Judge John J. McConnell Jr. of Rhode Island wrote in a letter to the commission.

But some prosecutors, including some within the Justice Department, have raised public safety concerns. A group of federal prosecutors, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said the move would lead to higher crime and give defendants little incentive to resolve their cases through plea deals.

"The strong sentencing scheme that has been in place in place over the last 25 years in our country has contributed to the lowest crime rates in more than a generation," the organization wrote.

Comments

sugar

Holder should be the one locked up.

freespeech1

Breaking news today holders office was targeting conservative businesses just like IRS. Now we know why he didn't pursue an investigation. The rabbit hole gets deeper

JMOP's picture
JMOP

Wouldn't surprise me what that sloth does, unless he's doing his job legally.

Do you have a link for that?

Babo

"A group of federal prosecutors, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said the move would lead to higher crime and give defendants little incentive to resolve their cases through plea deals."

How about US Attorneys and their assistants actually try cases on true indictments instead of coercing pleas on stacked counts. God forbid they have to actually work and lose the justification on how all their easy drug cases leave little time to go after public corruption and white collar crime cases.

deertracker

Good point!

gene44870

Baba . You know that if all cases went to trial chances are the balk of cases would end up dismissed due to the defendent having the right to a speedy trial . That is why they try to reach a plea deal. To save time and money

Babo

Sure. But there's document called the Constitution that states citizens are entitled to trial by jury. One of the purposes behind that trial requirement is to ensure the nation does not become a police state by default through abuse of the legal system.

We have a prison industry complex that sucks a big portion of tax dollars that ought to be used for other things. It needs easy cases such as drug cases to fill the prisons and then justifies ignoring the tough cases such as public corruption and white collar crime that do a lot more damage to the nation. For example, not one wall street mortgage banker saw prison yet that system devastated the American economy. Another great example is Holder's silence with the IRS criminal conspiracy that impacts everybody in this nation.

deertracker

I don't get why defendants waive their right to a speedy trial and you should always exercise your right to be quiet.

Babo

Public defenders waive the speedy trial right for them, claiming they need the time to prepare for trial. In reality, the PD's are working with the prosecution and court to coerce the plea by wearing down the defendant who is often languishing in jail. PD's and appointed counsel don't want to work hard especially when they are paid so little to take a case to trial. And the courts want their dockets cleared.

It's only the very wealthy who can afford to try a criminal case anymore and when they are involved in a trial, prosecutors often lose the cases proving they overcharged in the first place. For example, the US Attorney just had a major loss in Cleveland in the Benjamin Suarez case, losing on 7 of 8 counts at a jury trial and the one count with a guilty verdict will probably not survive an appeal.

deertracker

I believe Public Defenders work for the public, not the defendant. I agree about the overcharging. That really is why Casey Anthony is a free woman. However, it would be wise for criminals to get a better understanding of the law.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Thank you for your explanations, Babo.

Contango

Re: "the Constitution that states citizens are entitled to trial by jury."

The NDAA and Patriot Act don't give a sh*t about that or even a writ of habeas corpus.

SamAdams

Good point. Making matters worse: The lack of specificity involved and the accompanying ability of authorities to relate almost ANYthing to "terrorism" (even by redefining the meaning of certain words, or by linking disparate "crimes" through multiple "contacts," or even by nothing at all because they can just say it's "top secret," "national security," etc.) is a threat not just to the Sixth Amendment but to them ALL.

deertracker

I always thought the defendant made the decision to waive or not! Make the State prove its' case NOW! Most of the time they can't but the PD still has to be ready.

Contango

Re: "drug crimes,"

WAY past time to end the wholly unconstitutional 'New Prohibition.'

Make the use of mood altering substances a medical or moral issue, NOT a criminal one.

Babo

Agreed. It's time to decriminalize it, tax it, and spend the money currently wasted on interdiction and incarceration on treatment and mental health programs.

grumpy

I am also interested in how gov't subsidies for living and especially healthcare is or isn't allowed for those who make the decision to use drugs. Should gov't subsidise them? If so should it be limited for their choices? Even obamacare makes smokers pay more... what about drug use? I really haven't been convinced either way yet.

SamAdams

That's worked incredibly well in countries that have tried it. The rates of addiction have gone DOWN. Obviously, so have crime rates. There's only one reason not to do the same here: MONEY/POWER (the two are interchangeable in this case).

grumpy

I wonder how many of those 46K made plea deals for something violent being dropped and pleading to a drug offense? Is that taken into consideration when looking to use this for each prisoner and how much weight it is given making the determination on who is eligable for early release?

The Big Dog's back

I'm sure since there is nobody as smart you who would consider anything else. Are you a retired rocket scientist?

Donegan

In this DOJ I would say There is not anyone with half a brain let alone common sense. If there was they would already be a ton of people from the admin in prison.
For 8 years we heard about throwing Bush in prison but when Obama does the same things you are oddly silent on the matter, Well not oddly, you are a hypocrite after all.

knowitall

Overcrowding prisons vs. putting drug dealers back on the street? Seems like an easy choice to me! How bad can overcrowded prisons be? Poor babies, have to sleep four to a small room. The worst DOJ in my lifetime.

SamAdams

Keep in mind, knowitall, that having in your possession ANY amount over a set minimum -- even where marijuana is concerned -- sees you charged with "intent to distribute," i.e. "drug dealing." While some of the drug dealers in prison are, indeed, very, VERY bad and dangerous guys (and gals), others happened to have a baggie of pot in their jeans pocket with an amount just barely over the line legally drawn between "personal use" and "intent to distribute." And woe betide those who were stopped anywhere near a school grounds!

Prison overcrowding is a legitimate problem (though I've always been partial to Joe Arpaio's solution of putting the overflow into tents on prison grounds). But it WOULDN'T be a problem if those who shouldn't be there in the first place (thanks to over-the-top mandatory minimums and crimes that SHOULDN'T be crimes) had never been charged.

All of that aside: "Worst DOJ in my lifetime" doesn't even BEGIN to cover the criminal activities ongoing in those hallways and into the offices of those at the very top!