Thousands of federal drug inmates set for early release
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Thousands of federal inmates serving sentences for drug crimes are set for early release next month under a cost-cutting measure intended to reduce the nation's prison population.
The more than 5,500 inmates set to go free in November are among the first of what could eventually be tens of thousands eligible for release. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last year to retroactively apply substantially lower recommended sentences for those convicted of drug-related felonies.
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The commission, an independent panel that sets federal sentencing policy, estimated the prison terms would be cut by an average of 25 months.
Under the program, a judge reviews each prisoner's case to decide if his or her release would jeopardize public safety. Most of those eligible for consideration have already served 10 years or more.
The Justice Department estimates that roughly 40,000 prisoners could benefit from the program in the coming years.
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The changes are part of a national bipartisan effort to rethink decades-long sentences for drug offenders, who are roughly half the federal prison population.
Reform advocates have long criticized sentencing disparities rooted in 1980s War on Drugs legislation that targeted crack cocaine.
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The Justice Department issued new clemency criteria last year designed to encourage thousands of additional inmates to seek an early release. Two years ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences - which limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter sentences - for nonviolent drug offenders.
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 types of drug offenses - meaning, for instance, that a cocaine package of a given size would now be linked to a shorter range of punishment than before.
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