Why the Obama Administration Wants to Reduce Prison Terms for Drug Offenders

The U.S. Sentencing Commission published a rule Tuesday that will lead to reduced jail time for nonviolent drug offenders, a change that the commission believes is needed to reduce overcrowding in federal prisons.

The commission is an independent agency that issues sentencing guidelines for federal courts. In April, it voted unanimously to change sentencing guidelines for drug crimes in a way that it said should help lower sentences by an average of 11 months — the average drug offender serves 62 months, so on average, the commission expects a 17 percent reduction in jail time.

The Obama administration is looking to reduce crowding at federal prisons by reducing drug-related sentences. (AFP/Thomas Samson)

Under the rule published Tuesday, reduced prison terms are aimed at defendants who offered “substantial assistance” to prosecutors during the case. The rule said the commission is also considering whether and how to apply the new rule to people already serving prison time for drug offenses.

The panel said this change is needed to deal with federal prisons that are running out of room to house nonviolent drug offenders, and said it would lower the number of people in jail by several thousand.

“The Commission estimates that the amendment reducing drug guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over five years, with a significantly greater long-term impact,” it said in April.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the commission. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

The Sentencing Reform Act requires the commission to use sentencing guidelines that try to avoid a situation where the federal prison population exceeds prison capacity. The rule said federal prisons are already housing 32 percent more prisoners than their official capacity, and said drug trafficking offenders account for 50 percent of the federal prison population.

“Spending on federal prisons exceeds $6 billion a year, or more than 25 percent of the entire budget for the Department of Justice,” the rule added.

The commission’s rule will take effect Nov. 1, unless Congress acts to disapprove of any of its proposed changes.

The Obama administration has been making a push for reduced prison terms for low-risk drug offenders. In late April, the Justice Department announced a new initiative aimed at letting more prisoners apply to the president for clemency.

Under that proposal, prisoners could ask the White House for a reduced sentence if they have been in prison for 10 years, if they are nonviolent with a good conduct record, and if they would have received a shorter sentence under sentencing guidelines in place today.

“We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in April.