The U.S. Sentencing Commission took a bold step toward correcting decades of injustice last week by approving a plan to reduce the prison sentences for about 50,000 federal inmates convicted of low-level drug crimes. The move would reduce the ballooning federal prison population and save taxpayers money. Congress, which has until Nov. 1 to block the plan, should make sure it succeeds. Releasing inmates who received unfairly harsh sentences during the war on drugs would more fairly align their punishment with newer sentencing guidelines that have lessened penalties for the same crimes.
In April, the sentencing commission voted to change the base offense levels associated with drug quantities in trafficking crimes. That reduced prison sentences for low-level drug dealers by about 11 months and is expected to result in a decrease of about 6,500 federal prisoners over a five-year period. But like the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which sought to correct the sentencing disparities for dealers of crack and powder cocaine, the sentencing commission's April rule was not retroactive. It left tens of thousands of prisoners languishing behind bars.
Last week's vote seeks to close the gap. The new rule calls for a federal judge to review each case before an inmate is granted early release. If Congress allows the rule to stand, inmates may begin applying for early release in November. If approved, releases will begin in November 2015. The delay appeases critics who worried that some violent offenders might slip through the cracks during a rushed review process.
The sentencing commission's vote affirms a broader effort by the Obama administration and Congress to ease the burdens on federal prisons, which house 216,000 inmates, many of whom are incarcerated for low-level drug crimes. The sentencing commission wisely set aside fears that an inmate exodus would endanger public safety and stuck to the facts. Research shows that low-level drug offenders who are released early are no more likely to reoffend than those who serve their entire sentences.
Federal and local governments also should work together to ensure that newly released inmates have access to transition programs that provide them with the social and employment skills that will allow them to thrive and resist the lure of crime. Long sentences for low-level drug crimes benefit no one, including taxpayers.