Patti Saris.
Patti Saris. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday unanimously approved a measure to reduce sentences for certain federal drug offenders by an average of 25 months.

The measure comes amid the Obama administration’s effort to reduce federal prison population, which the U.S. Department of Justice has described as overcrowded and under-resourced.

Friday’s measure retroactively applies an amendment to the sentencing guidelines, lowering the sentences for drug quantities in trafficking cases by two levels.

“Many of the same factors which led us to vote in April to reduce drug guidelines support making those reductions retroactive,” Chairwoman Patti Saris said in her opening remarks.

In order to prepare the judiciary to handle the 46,000 eligible applicants, the commission pushed the effective date to Nov. 1, 2015. The delay, Saris said, provides the courts the opportunity to familiarize itself with processes, and it will give reentry services, such as halfway houses, the time to prepare.

The commission said they received over 60,000 letters during their public comment period.

U.S. Attorney Sally Yates testified last month for the government in support of retroactivity, provided that it applies only to offenders convicted without weapons charges or extensive criminal histories.

However, in a statement before the vote, Commissioner Ketanji Jackson, who serves as a U.S. district judge for the District of Columbia, said, “It is nearly impossible to make the dangerousness determination in a principled and fair way.” She added: “Each drug offender is going to have to be evaluated individually in order to determine whether or not as a result of dangerousness or otherwise his or her sentence should be reduced.”

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said the implementation delay gives judges adequate time to consider whether to reduce a candidate’s sentence.

“This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system,” Holder said in a written statement.

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said for parents currently in prison for harsh drug sentences, the decision will “add years of their children’s lives.” In their decision to delay the measure until next year, Gill said the commission “acted responsibly.”

In a statement, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the vote “an important step toward responsibly addressing our unsustainable prison population.”

“Every dollar spent on unnecessary incarceration strips finite resources from critical law enforcement priorities,” Leahy said.

Contact Jimmy Hoover at jhoover@alm.com. On Twitter: @JimmyHooverDC.