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August 01, 2014

Retroactivity okayed for reduced drug sentencing guidelines

In action strongly supported by the ABA, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) unanimously approved an amendment last month to apply reduced sentencing guidelines retroactively to people who are currently serving time for certain nonviolent drug offenses.

The commission added retroactivity to a sentencing reduction amendment approved last April and sent to Congress as part of the 2014 amendments to the drug sentencing guidelines. The 2014 amendments seek to reduce the disproportionate role that the single factor of drug quantity has played in sentences tied to mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Offenders eligible for a reduction should have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months, or 18.8 percent. They would still serve 108 months on average. Judges would still determine whether a person qualifies for the retroactive reduction.

Unless Congress disapproves, the 2014 amendments will go into effect Nov. 1. 2014. Under the retroactivity amendment, eligible offenders may ask courts to reduce their sentences beginning Nov. 1, 2014, and those whose requests are granted by the courts can be released beginning Nov. 1, 2015.

Numerous witnesses, including the ABA, testified in support of retroactivity at a June 10 commission hearing.

“It is unfair for thousands of prisoners to continue serving unduly severe sentences that would be nearly 1/5 lower if imposed today,” James E. Felman, the ABA’s liaison to the commission and now co-chair of the Criminal Justice Section, told the commission. He noted in his statement that recidivism rates of those released early under retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment are expected to be low based on a USSC study of previous experience with retroactive application of a 2007 crack cocaine amendment. The 2007 amendment reduced by two levels the base offense levels assigned by the Drug Quantity Table for each quantity of crack cocaine.

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