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Native Sun News: DOJ backs lower sentences for some offenders

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Attorney General Eric Holder. Photo from DOJ

Reduced sentences for drug offenders pending
Non-violent offenders could benefit
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

WASHINGTON –– Some inmates currently serving time for federal drug offenses and those waiting to be sentenced under federal drug law are likely to see a two-level reduction in their sentences if the United States Sentencing Commission heeds the advice that private and governmental experts gave in testimony to the commission.

Last week the United States Department of Justice, for the first time in its history, backed a proposal that would support efforts to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders currently serving time.

“Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible, nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Earlier this year the United States Sentencing Commission approved a proposal to lower certain drug sentencing guidelines for future offenses. They will submit their recommendation to reduce sentences by two levels to Congress later this year.

The hearing last week heard testimony regarding who would be eligible for the two point reduction and if those currently serving time should receive retroactive sentence reductions. If the two point reduction is made retroactive the federal government would save an estimated $2.4 billion in taxpayer dollars. The move follows along a policy agenda that the Obama administration set forth last fall to reform America’s criminal justice system.

Overcrowding in federal prisons and skyrocketing incarceration rates over the past several decades has forced the Department of Justice to allocate approximately 1 quarter of its budget to incarceration. The United States in general has spent nearly 1 trillion dollars in the last 40 years in efforts to eradicate illegal drugs in the U.S. Despite the huge sums of money spent use of illegal drugs has remained stable.

The commission has estimated that full retroactivity could apply to roughly 25% of the 215,000 inmates currently housed in Bureau of Prison facilities. More than half of all offenders serving federal prison time are carrying out sentences related to drug offenses, 55% of those inmates are serving sentences longer than 10 years.

Indian Country has supplied a steady stream of prisoners to the federal system as all major crimes committed on Indian reservations are prosecuted under federal law. Although Native inmates only make up .2 percent of the population, they account for 1.9% of inmates serving federally imposed sentences. United States census data and statistics released by the Bureau of Prisons show that Native Americans are 9 times more likely to serve time than non-Hispanic whites.

The Department of Justice’s proposal seeks to limit the two point reduction to a smaller segment of the prison population, a number closer to 20,000.

“Under the department’s proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the Commission in April,” Holder said.

Representatives of the Justice Department also stated that limiting those who are eligible for the sentence reduction would prevent the organization from being inundated with an inordinate amount of work.

If applied retroactively to those already serving sentences the average relief that a prisoner would receive on their sentence amounts to about 11 months. The reduction would vary slightly for each individual prisoner based on a number of factors including the length of sentence. Those who were sentenced to mandatory minimums would not be eligible unless, at the time of sentencing, they were ordered to serve a term of confinement that was lengthier than the mandatory minimum sentence associated with the crime required.

Holder’s, proposal was not met with open arms by those who have advocated for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and a drastic reduction in America’s prison population.

“Under the Department of Justice’s proposal, only 20,000 prisoners would be eligible to benefit from retroactivity. As you can imagine FAMM and others who testified strongly oppose that position and argued against it,” said Julie Stewart, President and Founder of Families against Mandatory Minimums in a release. “We know that criminal history frequently overstates how dangerous a person is; that testifying to your innocence at trial can trigger an obstruction of justice bump; that there is a difference between someone who points a gun at another person and someone who got a gun bump from a codefendant’s gun; and that every case is different and deserving of individual attention.”

Stewart was joined by Judge Irene Keeley representing the Federal Judicial Conference in calling for the application of retroactivity. Although Judge Keeley acknowledged that retroactivity could potentially signal more work for courts around the country she stated that it was the “burden” of the courts to endure. She would go on to speak of the unfairness of not applying the sentencing change to those already serving time.

The final ruling from the commission will be submitted to Congress later this year.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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