(CN) - A unanimous vote Friday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will let more than 46,000 federal inmates imprisoned for drug offenses apply to reduce their sentences retroactively.
To give judges and probation officers time to adapt to the new protocols, the inmates must wait until Nov. 1, 2015 to file their petitions, the commission said.
The vote comes two months after the commission passed the so-called "Drugs Minus Two," an amendment to the sentencing code that lowered the federal guidelines for federal drug offenses two levels for defendants.
Such a reduction would reduce sentences about 25 months on average, according to the commission's recently updated estimate.
Originally slated to take effect this November, organizations representing federal prosecutors, defense attorneys and federal judges agreed at a hearing last month that the law should apply retroactively.
The fully retroactive application of the amendment passed today will let 46,290 federal prisoners petition for an earlier release, the commission said in its latest revision to earlier estimates.
Judges and probation officers then will decide on their fates on a case-by-case basis.
The commission unanimously rejected the Justice Department's proposal
for "limited retroactivity," which would have excluded prisoners in higher criminal-history categories and those with sentencing enhancements for obstruction of justice, possession of a weapon or other uncharged offenses.
These limitations would have reduced the eligible prisoners to fewer than 20,000 inmates, according to data compiled by the Federal Defenders.
The Washington-based advocacy group Families for Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which slammed the Justice Department's "arbitrary, one-size-fits-all" exclusions, said that 60,000 letters poured into the commission urging them to reject the Justice Department's proposal.
Mary Price, a lawyer for FAMM, said in an interview that the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in Washington, D.C., had a standing-room-only crowd in the room where the vote was held. The commission opened up an overflow room for people who could not fit inside.
FAMM put out a call for Washington-area families of prisoners to attend, and dozens came with their children and pictures of their incarcerated loved ones.
"It was an incredibly moving thing," Price said. "This full room of people just waiting what was going to happen, just grasping the enormity of it."
U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, who chairs the commission, called upon Congress to implement further reform.
"The step the commission is taking today is an important one, but only Congress can bring about the more comprehensive reforms needed to reduce disparities, fully address prison costs and populations, and make the federal criminal justice system work better," said Saris, who also serves as the chief judge for the District of Massachusetts.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., responded to the vote by calling for the passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act.
Whereas the commission's vote only affected the guidelines, the bill Leahy supports would cut mandatory minimums in half, particularly for crack offenses criticized for disproportionally punishing black inmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union's senior counsel Jesselyn McCurdy, who testified before the commission in favor the amendment last month, called the vote a step in "the march toward fairness in our country's failed, racially biased sentencing policies."
"Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people who received overly harsh sentences under the old sentencing guidelines," McCurdy said. "The Sentencing Commission absolutely did the right thing today by putting the power to decide retroactivity in judges' hands."
Attorney General Eric Holder, who was criticized for his attempt to limit retroactivity, meanwhile noted the Justice Department's "ongoing discussions with the commission" as the vote approached.
He said that the department pushed for the implementation delay to address "public safety concerns."
"At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately," Holder said in a statement. "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."