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(Washington, DC) – A decision by the US Sentencing Commission on July 18, 2014, will give 46,000 federal inmates serving unnecessarily long sentences for drug offenses a chance to seek sentence reductions. The decision would make a recent amendment to the guidelines for calculating sentences for drug offenses fully retroactive, covering inmates already sentenced as well as future offenders. 

The Sentencing Commission rejected last-minute efforts to deny retroactivity for some offenders, though it decided to delay implementation of retroactivity for a year.

“The Sentencing Commission’s decision is an important step away from the disproportionate punishment and racial disparities that have plagued federal drug sentencing for decades,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “While the one-year delay is disappointing, the Sentencing Commission has embraced the principle that sentence reductions should benefit current inmates as well as future offenders.”

In April the commission had decided unanimously that federal drug sentences were longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment. In a submission to the Sentencing Commission, Human Rights Watch had urged it to make the amendment fully retroactive, noting there was no justification for requiring federal inmates to continue serving prison terms imposed under a sentencing structure the commission had rightly discarded.

The commission has noted that the US Congress has until November 1 to disallow its amendments to the drug guidelines. Congress should leave the amendments intact, even while it continues to discuss deeper sentencing reforms through legislation.

“Congress itself is assessing how best to tackle the serious problems of mass incarceration and overly harsh sentencing for drug offenses,” Ginatta said. “It should start by allowing the Sentencing Commission amendments to go into effect.”


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