U.S. judicial agency OKs early release of federal prisoners

By Julia Edwards
Attorney General Eric Holder announces at the Justice Department in Washington Monday, July 14, 2014, that Citigroup will pay $7 billion to settle an investigation into risky subprime mortgages, the type that helped fuel the financial crisis. The agreement comes weeks after talks between the sides broke down, prompting the government to warn that it would sue the New York investment bank. The bank had offered to pay less then $4 billion, a sum substantially less that what the Justice Department was asking for. The settlement stems from the sale of securities made up of subprime mortgages, which fueled both the housing boon and bust that triggered the Great Recession at the end of 2007. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 46,000 drug offenders will be eligible for early release from federal prison under an amendment to sentencing guidelines passed on Friday by a U.S. judiciary agency - unless Congress blocks the change.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to make 46,290 drug offenders eligible for review by federal judges to determine if the sentences can be reduced without jeopardizing public safety.

The commission expects eligible candidates to receive an average of 25 months off of their sentences beginning in November 2015, making retroactive an amendment to sentencing guidelines passed earlier this year.

Congress has the authority to block both amendments by Nov. 1 of this year.

“Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people who received overly harsh sentences under the old sentencing guidelines," said Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has advocated sentencing reform.

Support for efforts to reduce sentences has grown in Congress and the Obama administration as U.S. crime rates have declined dramatically from levels three decades ago.

Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo in August 2013 telling federal prosecutors they should no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

A bill in Congress that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders has strong bipartisan support, including from conservative Senator Mike Lee, who sponsored the bill.

"It is as if all the branches of government woke up this year and figured out something that had to be done about the problems associated with overincarceration," said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Opponents of sentencing reform include law enforcement officers, prosecutors and some lawmakers, who warn that reducing sentences could cause crime rates to rise.

A majority of U.S. Attorneys opposed the amendment passed Friday, according to a source familiar with the process, on the grounds that they did not want change drug sentences previously handed down.

Holder, however, applauded the commission's decision in a statement released Friday.

At the state level, including such conservative places as Texas and South Carolina, sentences for drug offenders have been cut to address overcrowding in prisons and stretched budgets.

Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that reductions in those states' prison populations have had no effect on public safety.

(Repoting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)