U.S. Sentencing Commission takes steps to depopulate federal prisons

BY Willis Raburu  April 11, 2014 at 12:08 PM EDT

In a bid to reduce the federal prison population, the U.S. Sentencing Commission set in motion a change of formula to determine the sentencing of low-level, nonviolent federal drug law offenders. The commission voted Thursday to reduce sentencing guidelines for about 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defenders, and should Congress rubberstamp the proposal, the change would go into effect on Nov. 1.

Attorney General Eric Holder praised the commission’s shift. “It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system,” Holder said. He testified last month in support of the reduced sentencing guidelines.

Some lawmakers have accused Holder of preempting the commission. Appellate Judge William H Pryor JR., of 11th Circuit, a member of the commission, claims Holder “disrespected” the commission’s statutory role. Pryor said, “before we voted on the amendment, the attorney general instructed assistant United States attorneys across the nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward.”

Holder insists such “common-sense reforms” will continue to shape and send strong statements about stiff penalties for crime.

“It represents a milestone in our effort to reshape the criminal justice system’s approach to dealing with drug offenses. This reduction in the federal sentencing guidelines, while modest, sends a strong message about the need to reserve the harshest penalties for the most serious crimes.”

The federal prison system holds 216,000 prisoners. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the Unites States has nearly 25 percent of all prisoners.