The possibility that 51,000 federal prisoners will be eligible to apply for reduced sentences in November seems ever more likely, reports the National Law Journal. Nearly half of the 216,775 federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses, which Attorney General Eric Holder says has led to overcrowding and a strain on government resources. A proposal at the United States Sentencing Commission would allow those serving time for nonviolent drug-trafficking offenses to apply for retroactive sentence reductions. By lowering levels of drug quantities for which nonviolent offenders were originally charged, the new guidelines would cut terms by an average of 23 months.
The question of how the judicial system will handle the onslaught of so many renewed cases has divided advocacy groups, Justice Department lawyers and attorneys who are closely following the reform push. “The dilemma is that we're still in an era of very limited federal court resources,” said Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman. “Any retroactivity is going to eat up some of those resources. But 51,000 is going to eat up a lot of those resources.” Justice Department officials believe retroactivity should be limited to lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. U.S. Attorney Sally Yates of Atlanta told the commission that the strain on the federal court system incurred by massive case processing would pose a threat to public safety.