At a public meeting Thursday, the commission approved new guidelines that officials said would mean shorter terms for about 70 percent of offenders. Generally, the changes would reduce mandatory minimums suggested for various quantities of drugs for crimes not involving the use of violence or firearms.
Recent polls have shown increasing public support for treatment rather than prison for those convicted of drug possession. An increasing number of states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and two, Colorado and Washington, have done so for recreational use.
“We have given careful consideration to public safety in making this decision today and will continue to monitor drug sentences to determine whether any additional modifications are needed,” Chairwoman Patti B. Saris, the chief U.S. district judge in Massachusetts, said.
Congress can vote the new guidelines down. Otherwise, they will take effect Nov. 1.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who testified in favor of shorter sentences, said the vote "represents a milestone in our effort to reshape the criminal justice system's approach to dealing with drug offenses. This reduction in the federal sentencing guidelines, while modest, sends a strong message about the need to reserve the harshest penalties for the most serious crimes."
The commission received about 20,000 letters during the public comment period, with members of Congress and judges weighing in on the issue, Saris said.
The commission voted to increase terms for large marijuana growers trespassing on public or private land. Saris said the operations spread "chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and rodenticides which can cause damage to land, enter the water table, and poison wildlife.”
[U.S. Sentencing Commission]