(CN) - Attorney General Eric Holder supported an initiative today that would let tens of thousands of incarcerated nonviolent drug users petition for shorter prison terms, but federal defenders and advocacy groups noted that the proposed strategy is not nearly as sweeping as those they and judges have recommended.
In April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved a proposal to lower the guidelines for federal drug offenses two levels for defendants sentenced after Nov. 1, 2014. It estimated that the move would reduce average sentences by 23 months.
The commission will vote next month on whether to let that amendment apply retroactively.
During a hearing today, representatives from the Judicial Conference
of the United States and the Federal Defenders
both backed a plan that would apply to about 51,000 federal inmates.
Speaking for the Justice Department, the Northern District of Georgia's U.S. Attorney Sally Yates called
for "limited retroactivity" that excluded prisoners with sentencing enhancements for a firearms offense, possession of a dangerous weapon, obstruction of justice, or "using, threatening or directing the use of violence."
Only defendants assigned to the two lowest criminal history categories should be permitted to apply, she added.
These limitations would allow roughly 21,000 inmates to petition for relief, a Justice Department official estimated.
Holder later summarized the department's position in a press release backing reform in spirit, in a narrower application.
"Under the department's proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the commission in April," he said. "Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. 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 president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a Washington-based advocacy group, responded to what it called "arbitrary, one-size-fits-all criteria."
"While the DOJ may be attempting to limit the number of reduced sentences for efficiency's sake, efficiency should never trump justice," Julie Stewart said in a statement.
The original proposal already gave judges and probation officers discretion over whom to release, she added. "It is the job of judges and probation officers to decide who's dangerous and who should get a sentence reduction," Stewart said. "They do that job every day, and they do it well."
Nearly half of the roughly 217,000 federal inmates in the United States are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics.
The American Civil Liberties Union says that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners.