Cohen: Release of 6,000 Drug Offenders Brings Justice to Americans Serving Needlessly Long Sentences

October 6, 2015
Press Release

[WASHINGTON, DC] –Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, welcomed today’s breaking news that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will soon release roughly 6,000 federal prisoners serving sentences that would have already ended if handed down today. This is the first group of an estimated 46,000 offenders eligible for release under new guidelines for federal drug sentences, many of whom were originally sentenced under guidelines that unfairly targeted African Americans, and is a significant move toward justice and away from needlessly lengthy sentences that add to the federal deficit and contribute to the nation’s prison overcrowding problem.

“Throughout my career, I’ve fought for fairer sentencing laws and worked to eliminate racially-biased sentencing disparities,” said Congressman Cohen. “After years of advocating on behalf of Americans who are unfairly incarcerated, I am pleased that our nation’s policies are beginning to bend further towards justice. These offenders would have already completed their sentences and been freed if convicted under today’s guidelines, and I am pleased the President’s Administration is acting bring these inmates the justice they deserve, reunite them with their families, and save American taxpayers money.”

While the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Congressman Cohen cosponsored and the President signed into law, reduced the racially-biased disparity between crack and powder cocaine mandatory minimum sentences from 100:1 to a bipartisan compromise of 18:1, it did not apply retroactively to thousands of people who were sentenced before the law was passed who are still serving sentences that have been repudiated by Congress and President Barack Obama. Last year, a week after Congressman Cohen wrote to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s chairwoman, the Commission unanimously voted to make the new sentencing guidelines retroactive to those serving already-issued sentences, shaving off an average of 25 months from their sentences.

With the cost of housing federal inmates reaching nearly $30,000 per year, a 25 month sentence reduction for 46,000 inmates could save the federal government as much as $2.8 billion dollars. The shift could also help alleviate prison overcrowding and achieve a shared goal of Congressman Cohen and the President’s Administration to reserve the harshest penalties for the most dangerous criminals who pose a great threat to public safety, rather than non-violent offenders convicted of simple possession charges.

Congressman Cohen has long worked to reform and reduce our nation’s inhumane non-violent drug crime sentences. He has repeatedly asked the President to make broader use of his pardon and commutation powers for the unfairly incarcerated, including urging Attorney General Eric Holder to address the issue on multiple occasions, a letter sent to the President in June 2013, an August 2013 speech on Capitol Hill and a stirring column that appeared in The Nation. The pardon and commutation powers are, in addition to being the speediest method of bringing needed justice to thousands of people incarcerated under outdated crack cocaine sentences, one of the few actions that the President can take without being blocked or delayed by an obstructionist Congress. 

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