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U.S. agency recommends shorter prison sentences for drug offenders

US Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) answers questions during the 2009 Reuters Washington Summit in Washington, October 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jona
US Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) answers questions during the 2009 Reuters Washington Summit in Washington, October 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jona

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Up to 70 percent of all federal drug offenses could carry shorter prison sentences if the recommendation passed on Thursday by an agency that advises U.S. federal judges on sentencing is not opposed by Congress.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission's recommendation reflects a policy supported by the Obama administration to bring punishments for low-level drug offenders in line with the severity of their crime. Some Republicans in Congress say more lenient sentences would reverse the drop in crime the United States has seen over recent decades.

The commission unanimously recommended reducing the sentence dictated by the quantity of the drug by two levels, or an average of 11 months. For example, someone caught with 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of heroin would serve 51 to 63 months rather than 63 to 78 months.

Unless Congress votes to stop the amendment, it will go into effect on November 1. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he opposes lowering sentences.

The amendment would not reduce penalties for drug traffickers with the greatest drug quantities, and sentencing guidelines already take into account whether the drug offense was combined with violence or possession of a firearm.

"Quantity, while still an important proxy for seriousness, no longer needs to be quite as central to the calculation," said Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Patti Saris.

Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that the commission lower sentences for drug offenders as it falls in line with his philosophy of reducing spending on prisons and sentencing drug offenders more justly in accordance with their crime, two goals he has launched a review of the criminal justice system to address.

The Department of Justice estimates that the amendment would reduce the federal prison population by roughly 6,550 inmates over five years. In 2010, nearly half of 216,000 total federal inmates were serving time for drug-related crimes.

Testifying before the Sentencing Commission in January, Holder urged the group of seven to lower sentences based on drug quantities, telling them it would help "rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety."

In drafting the amendment, the commission looked at the effects of a 2007 law lowering penalties for crack cocaine offenders. Their data showed that those offenders who served shorter time after the law passed were no more likely to return to federal prison than those who served longer sentences.

But critics say that reducing sentences would weaken the leverage of prosecutors.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association and former drug czar under President George W. Bush, said district attorneys will be weakened by lower sentencing at the federal level because they often use the threat of tough federal punishment as a tool to convince drug offenders who have witnessed larger crimes to cooperate.

"They can use the leverage of the threat of harsher punishment in order to solve murder cases and prosecute drug kingpins," Burns said.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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