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Unanimous Vote Could Mean Reduced Penalties For 46,000 Defendants


Now to a major decision that could bring big changes to as many as 46,000 prison inmates. Those are people convicted of drug crimes, and today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to reduce prison sentences for drug defendants who are already behind bars. This would start next year. NPR justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson, has our story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The U.S. Sentencing Commission sets guidelines for prison terms for a host of crimes, but today, they voted unanimously to dial back penalties for people convicted of drug trafficking offenses. Judge Patti Saris chairs the panel.


PATTI SARIS: Retroactive application of this change in the guidelines would make a real short-term and long-term difference as we seek to help get the federal prison budget and population under control.




JOHNSON: As the judge was speaking, a baby girl cooed - the grandchild of a man from the Washington, D.C. area who's serving life in prison for drug crimes. Now he may be one of 46,000 people eligible to come home sooner. Julie Stewart leads the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

JULIE STEWART: This is the largest vote in my 23 years of working on sentencing reform on a given day that will impact this many prisoners.

JOHNSON: Stewart says as a result of the decision, 395 people who had expected to die behind bars probably will not.

STEWART: If we can reduce sentences by an average of 25 months, which is what the commission has just done, that's going to make a lot of people be home in time to go to weddings and graduations and see babies born. And it's - these are human lives that will be affected.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department had advocated a more limited approach, excluding people who had used weapons or obstructed criminal investigations. But Judge Ketanji Jackson, a member of the Sentencing Commission, says the panel struggled with how to draw those lines and still be fair. Instead, courts will be empowered to take those decisions case-by-case.


KETANJI JACKSON: Each drug offender is going to have to be evaluated individually in order to determine whether or not, as a result of dangerousness or otherwise, his or her sentence should be reduced.

JOHNSON: To give judges and probation officers more time for that, the commission will allow inmates to begin applying this year, but no one will be released from prison before November 2015. Commission chair, Patti Saris.


SARIS: With time to prepare, the Office of Probation and Pretrial services will be able to ensure more effective supervision which will increase the chance of successful offender reentry and help ensure public safety.

JOHNSON: Some police groups have argued that releasing so many prisoners could drive up crime rates, but the commission studied an earlier group of inmates who were let out early after changes in crack cocaine laws and found they were no more likely to return to crime than other ex-offenders. Jonathan Wroblewski works at the Justice Department on criminal justice policy.

JONATHAN WROBLEWSKI: We have learned that while prison can work to reduce crime, just as importantly, less prison can also work to reduce crime.

JOHNSON: The Bureau of Prisons has already begun to notify inmates of the sentencing change. And judges are preparing for a significant impact on their workload. Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, who sits on the sentencing panel, pointed out today that about a quarter of the inmates eligible for early release are foreign citizens likely to be deported to their home countries. He urged the Obama administration to reach out to those countries soon, so they can be prepared too. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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