So, this is potentially pretty great news. After voting to reduce prison sentences for certain drug offences earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has voted unanimously to retroactively apply these changes to prisoners who have already been sentenced. This means that more than 46,000 inmates could see their sentences cut by around 2 years each.
The decision is a small sign of progress for a system that has long imposed overly-long sentences on drug offenders, especially for those convicted on non-violent offenses or those who played a peripheral role in deals involving a large quantity of drugs. But, it is not a complete fix, and honestly, it is not even close:
In fact, many federal judges have expressed vocal outrage over schemes that bind them to sentencing low-level defendants like kingpins. That fundamental scheme hasn’t been changed by today’s fix. Since the mid-1980s, these drug sentencing laws have placed an over-emphasis on quantities of drugs rather than a defendant’s role in the crime. That means that a person involved in an offense that involved 50 grams of methamphetamine could get 40 years in prison, regardless of whether they served as mastermind of the deal or a low-level courier of money.
The Sentencing Commission and the U.S. Justice Department would both like to see this scheme changed. But for that, they have to wait for an act of Congress, since even the Sentencing Guidelines are tied to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players,” Saris said in January.
But, any amount of progress, however small, is still a good thing. The first 8,000 inmates eligible for a review of their sentence will appear before a judge in November 2015. If every eligible inmate is awarded the maximum sentence reduction, it would mean a total of 83,525 fewer years behind bars, and would translate to huge savings for a prison system already short on funds. But, just as importantly, it would be a small bit of justice for people who were penalized far more than they should have been.
However, one obstacle remains:
Congress has the authority to block both amendments by Nov. 1 of this year.
It would not be surprising if hardliners in Congress (especially those in the pockets of private prison companies) decided to stand firmly in favor of draconian drug sentencing and attempt to block the amendments from taking effect. Fortunately, this Congress has a history of sitting on their hands instead of taking action. And this is one instance where their inaction could actually do some good. It would be even better if they would act and pass the proposed reform bills, but that may be too much to hope for.
Of course, none of this would be an issue in the first place if the U.S. did not have such severe penalties for drug offenses on the books. Nor would it be an issue if marijuana were legalized (or at least decriminalized) since most drug offences involve marijuana rather than “scarier” drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin. Sadly, change comes slowly. But, it appears that change is indeed coming. And that is a good thing.