TIME justice

Reduced Drug Sentences Could Affect 46,000 Prisoners

Those already behind bars could have their sentences reduced by more than two years

The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday unanimously voted to retroactively reduce prison sentences for drug offenders who are currently serving their terms. The move follows a decision in April to reduce future sentences by about two years, but will soon apply to those already behind bars so long as Congress does not overrule the vote.

Around 46,000 inmates sentenced before Nov. 1,2014 and locked up for nonviolent drug offenses could be eligible for reduced sentences, with releases beginning Nov. 1, 2015. The commission estimates that under the new rules the average prisoner could have his or her sentenced reduced by about 25 months, though they’d likely still serve about 108 months, or nine years.

The move “reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety,” Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission in a statement.

The new guidelines have been widely praised by advocacy groups, and the Commission says that the majority of the 60,000 letters it received on the matter during the public comment period were positive.

The Department of Justice had formally supported a more limited version of the guidelines, which would only apply if offenders were not guilty of violent crimes, did not have significant criminal histories and if their cases did not involve the use of weapons back in June. However, on Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that he looks forward to working with the commission on implementing the new guidelines. “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.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based organization that advocates for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences praised the Commission’s decision on Friday, exclaiming triumphantly, “We did it!”

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