About 50,000 federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes can seek a shorter sentence, after the commission that sets guidelines for criminal punishments voted Friday to apply a recent amendment to old cases. The 46,290 inmates represent about 21% of all federal prisoners. The amendment this year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which altered the formula for calculating penalties for drug-trafficking offenses, could lop off an average of 25 months from the sentences of eligible prisoners.
There's been a striking amount of progress -- some of it substantive, some of it rhetorical -- on the debate over sentencing reforms, but today's news may be one of the most significant developments to date.
Judge Patti Sarisn, the commission chair, said in a press release, "This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach."
Note this isn't just a suggestion or an academic exercise -- the U.S. Sentencing Commission is a policymaking body. When it approves a retroactive change to federal guidelines for drug convicts, the commission members are opening the door for tens of thousands of people to be paroled.
So what happens now? An interesting put-up-or-shut-up political fight is poised to begin in earnest.
Chris Geidner noted a statement from the commission: "Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015."
In other words, Congress has about four months to weigh in. If lawmakers do nothing, the Commission's policy will take effect.
But will Congress do nothing? At this point, we don't know. Democrats are likely to be broadly supportive of the change, and there's reason for at least some optimism on Republican attitudes. A combination of the GOP's libertarian wing, spending hawks, and religious right have all voiced support for dramatic sentencing reforms.
If those attitudes are sincere, there's reason for optimism among sentencing-reform proponents.