June 10, 2014 at 11:57 am

Shorter sentences backed for some drug prisoners

Washington — The Justice Department said Tuesday that a proposal that would result in shorter prison sentences for drug criminals should apply to some, but not all, drug felons who are currently behind bars.

A proposal adopted in April by the U.S. Sentencing Commission would lower the sentencing guideline ranges associated with various drug offenses. Proponents say the move would reduce the federal prison population by about 6,550 over five years, reserving the harshest sentences for violent criminals and trimming costs from a bloated and overcrowded system.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder called for the Sentencing Commission proposal to be applied retroactively for certain prisoners — a move the Justice Department estimates would benefit as many as 20,000 prisoners.

Among those who would not be eligible are felons who were given tougher sentences for having a weapon or for obstructing justice. The move would also be aimed at those with limited criminal histories.

“Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible,” Holder said in a statement. “Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.”

The proposal is part of a broader rethinking of criminal justice policy within the Obama administration. The Justice Department in April, for instance, also revamped its clemency process to encourage more federal prisoners to apply for shorter sentences.

The Sentencing Commission was receiving testimony Tuesday on whether to apply the changes retroactively, but a vote was not expected until next month.