U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listens to a speaker after addressing a public policy forum on voting rights at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in Washington on Sept. 20, 2013. / Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON - In a move to cut the surging federal prison population, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Thursday to cut prison terms for most drug offenders by an average of 11 months.
An estimated 70% of federal drug defendants could qualify for the sentencing guideline reductions, dropping penalties by 17%, from 62 months in prison to 51 months.
The commission said the reduction could cut the overall federal prison population, which now stands at 216,000 offenders, by more than 6,500 inmates over five years.
"This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,'' said U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, the commission's chairwoman. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.''
Attorney General Eric Holder, who had endorsed sentencing reductions for non-violent drug offenders, said the commission's action represented a "milestone in our effort to reshape the criminal justice system's approach to dealing with the drug offenses.''
"At a time when prison and detention costs consume nearly a third of the Justice Department's budget, it simply makes sense to explore alternatives to incarceration and renew our emphasis on treatment and prevention while preserving public safety.''
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