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One of the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation will be on the table tomorrow here in Washington. The U.S. Sentencing Commission is set to vote on a plan that could send tens of thousands of federal prison inmates home early by reducing prison terms for drug trafficking. It's getting mixed reviews from both law enforcement and some civil rights groups. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sixty-five thousand people sent letters to the Sentencing Commission about its proposal to cut prison terms for drug offenses. Mary Price of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums says, she's knows why.
MARY PRICE: Because it matters to so many people. I mean, our membership - we have thousands of people that we communicate with via email who are in the Federal Bureau prisons and thousands of their family members. And many, many of these people would be affected.
JOHNSON: Earlier this year, the sentencing commission voted to cut suggested prison terms for people who commit new drug trafficking offenses. Now the panel's to decide whether to open federal prison doors for as many as 51,000 inmates already behind bars. On average, Price says, they could have nearly two years sliced off their old sentences.
PRICE: One out of every $4 that the Department of Justice spends, it spends on locking somebody in the bureau prisons. And half of those people are drug defendants.
JOHNSON: Those defendants wouldn't automatically be released. Federal judges would consider their request on a case-by-case basis. They'd review whether a given offender had used weapons or had a violent prison history. West Virginia judge Irene Keeley recently testified that the majority of federal judges support the idea, even though it means a lot of work for the courts.
IRENE KEELEY: The driving factor for the committee's decision was fundamental fairness. We do not believe that the date a sentence was imposed should dictate the length of imprisonment.
JOHNSON: But in a bit of a surprise to advocates for sentencing reform, the Justice Department has urged a more limited approach.
KEELEY: We believe that retroactivity in the drug amendment should be limited to lower level nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories.
JOHNSON: Sally Yates is the U.S. Attorney, the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta. She's worked at the Justice Department for nearly 25 years.
SALLY YATES: It's a simple fact that many federal drug offenders are dangerous. Many were involved in violent conduct. Many used a weapon in their offense and many are repeat offenders.
JOHNSON: Yates says those kinds of people should not be eligible to get out of prison early. If the limits recommended by the Justice Department are adopted, that would mean only about 20,000 inmates rather than 50,000 would get a break in their sentences. And the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says that could have a, quote, "grave impact on minority communities." The civil rights group, relying on data crunched by public defenders, says, 82 percent of black prisoners and 48 percent of Hispanic prisoners may not be eligible for early release under the DOJ limits.
But veteran law enforcement officers are urging the sentencing panel to look at some other numbers - crime rates, which have reached historic lows in many parts of the country. Bob Bushman is president of the National Narcotics Officers Association's Coalition. Bushman told the sentencing commission last month he worries about sending the wrong message to criminals.
BOB BUSHMAN: The more you reduce prison sentences, the more incentive you'll give drug dealers to continue committing the crimes that help their businesses grow, while they poison our young people and destroy our communities.
JOHNSON: It's not clear whether the sentencing commission will side with judges and advocates for inmates or with prosecutors and police. But given that proposals to rewrite the drug laws are in limbo in Congress, the commission's vote could represent the biggest change for prisons in years and the biggest for years to come. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.