WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of prisoners serving time for federal drug offenses will be eligible to seek early release beginning next year.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which voted in April to reduce penalties for most drug crimes, voted unanimously Friday to make the change retroactive. It will apply to nearly 50,000 federal inmates sentenced under the old rules.
The Sentencing Commission said the move would help ease prison overcrowding and reduce prison spending, which makes up about a third of the Justice Department's budget. The change comes amid a bipartisan effort to roll back the harshest penalties set at the height of the drug war.
Civil rights groups and prison-reform advocates cheered the decision. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, called it a "historic shift in the decades-long war on drugs, which has filled half of federal prison cells with people convicted of drug offenses."
The Sentencing Commission change takes effect Nov. 1 unless Congress votes to overrule it. Prisoners wouldn't be eligible for early release until a year from then.
The thousands of early releases won't happen at once. New prisoners will become eligible each year as they near the end of their sentences. A federal judge will review each request.