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Get Your Federal Drug Sentence Reduced: New Retroactive Reduction of Federal Sentences

Last week, people serving time behind bars for federal drug crimes got some great news.  The agency in charge of federal sentencing changed its policy.  Now, thousands of prisoners will be able to get an early release from federal prisons around the country.

People who are already serving time on federal drug convictions may be able to get their sentences reduced. This is wonderful news for many federal prisoners as well as their family and friends.  It’s also going to serve practical needs of the overburdened federal prison system.

Why is this happening?

The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ population is 32% over capacity.  It’s simple: the federal government needs the beds.  This new policy of lowering non-violent drug crime sentences lessens the load on federal facilities.  It’s predicted that these reductions will save the prison system up to 79,740 bed years (i.e., what it takes to take care of a single federal prisoner in that cell bed for 1 year).

Now people want to know:

  • Who gets an early reduction of their drug sentence?
  • How do they request their case be considered?

1. Reducing Sentences for People Incarcerated on Federal Drug Crimes

Here’s what happened. The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), a powerful agency that lots of people are not aware exists, changed things.  The USSC is part of the Judicial Branch of the federal government that acts as an independent agency dealing with issues involving sentencing people in federal courts for violation of federal criminal laws.

The USSC creates national policy for how individuals are to be sentenced for crimes in federal courtrooms all across the United States. Its goal is for people to be fairly sentenced for the same federal offense regardless of whether they were in a Hawaii courtroom or one in Maine, Texas, or Florida.  This national sentencing policy is known to most of us as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

The USSC voted in April 2014 to change the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on federal drug crimes. This has already gone into effect, making federal guidelines’ base offense levels lower in the Sentencing Guidelines’ Drug Quantity Tables for all illegal drugs. Lowering the drug quantities here means that in the future, people will be able to get lower sentences on federal drug crimes.

For more on the permanent change to the federal drug sentencing guidelines, read our earlier post, “ Major Changes to Federal Drug Crime Sentencing Guidelines Underway: DOJ’s Holder Helps Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers Get Lower Sentences for Drug Defendants.”

2. Retroactive Application of Federal Drug Sentencing Reductions

What has happened this month is that the United States Sentencing Commission has approved making these sentencing reductions apply to those already behind bars. They are now applicable “retroactively.” Retroactive application of the lowered drug guidelines means that people who had thought they would be spending many more years in federal prison on drug charges now have hope of being released earlier than they had hoped.

“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

3. Congress Must Approve Retroactive Application of the New Sentencing Guidelines

The Obama Administration is happy with this change in federal drug sentencing. The Department of Justice has issued a press release announcing that the Attorney General is pleased with this result. According to their news release, the Bureau of Prisons will work with the Justice Department in notifying prisoners of this new program and the possibility of getting an early release.

However, Congress must still give its consent to this retroactive application of the new guidelines.

Under federal law, Congress has until November 2014 to take action if it wishes to block this change for those already sentenced for drug crimes. If Congress does not act, then federal prisoners can begin taking the steps necessary to obtain a reduction in their federal prison sentence. They can look forward to walking out to freedom … but it’s not going to be this year.

4.  How Soon Can You Get Out on a Reduced Federal Drug Sentence?

Unfortunately, the implementation of this new sentencing policy is not going to be speedy. The soonest that a federal prisoner can get an early release under the new USSC retroactive reduction policy is November 1, 2015, sixteen months from now.

Why will it take over a year to get that early release on a federal drug charge?

According to the USSC, they want this window of time between the amendment and the actual process to begin of releasing federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes to “protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans,” according to USSC Chair Saris.

Questions?

If you have questions about a current federal drug sentence or a pending federal drug charge, including how the new sentencing guidelines changes impact your situation, then please feel free to call our offices to discuss your case.

You may also be interested in the possibility of CLEMENCY being offered by the Justice Department.  For more on that option, read our earlier post and call to discuss your chances of having the President help you get out of jail earlier than your original sentence.  

Here are the entire July 18, 2014 Amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines, stored in the Michael Lowe Digital Library for your convenience (read the pink highlights for the retroactive changes):


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