America's prisons are bulging with too many low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. A plan to reduce the sentences for some of these prisoners deserves consideration by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Setting the prisoners free early would right years of wrongs created by unfair sentencing guidelines imposed during the war on drugs. It also would bring down prison costs, which have ballooned to $80 billion a year, and save taxpayers money.
Nearly half of the country's 216,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes. Many of the inmates are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Their long-term incarceration has driven up federal prison spending, leaving less money to deal with more serious public safety threats. In many cases, these nonviolent drug offenders are being punished for crack cocaine offenses, which brought sentences that were 100 times harsher than offenses associated with powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act was enacted to correct those sentencing disparities, but the law was not retroactive and did little to help the thousands of inmates who were incarcerated before it passed.
In January, the sentencing commission recommended reducing prison sentences for low-level drug dealers by about 11 months. The change would lower the base offense levels associated with drug quantities in trafficking crimes. The modest reductions would result in a decrease of about 6,550 prisoners in the federal prison population by the fifth year of implementation. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder supports the plan and has said it will promote equitable sentencing and rein in federal prison spending.
It is the latest move in the Justice Department's push to deal more fairly with nonviolent drug offenders. Holder already has called for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and encouraged inmates serving time for low-level crack cocaine convictions to apply for clemency.
The commission is expected to vote on the sentence reduction proposal in April, and it should approve it. A commission report shows that there is no statistical difference in recidivism rates between those who served their entire sentences on drug charges and those who were released early. Releasing nonviolent inmates makes room for more violent offenders, who would still be subject to mandatory minimum sentences.