Release policy worries Goodlatte

Bob Goodlatte

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, is asking the Justice Department for details on federal inmates convicted of violent crimes who may be eligible for release on Nov. 1 under a new policy allowing reductions in sentences for some federal drug offenders.

The new policy, dubbed All Drugs Minus Two by its proponents, calls for the first inmates eligible for reduced sentences to be freed on Nov. 1. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an agency that makes sentencing policy for the federal court system, approved the All Drugs Minus Two changes in 2014. The changes, which specify a two-level sentence reduction in the base offense levels for all drug crimes, apply to those already in prison as well as those who have yet to be sentenced.

The Sentencing Commission has estimated that 46,290 offenders can apply for a sentence reduction that must be approved by a federal judge before they can be released. The commission has projected that eligible inmates could have their sentences reduced by an average of two years and one month, which would leave inmates to serve an average remaining sentence of nine years.

In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Goodlatte and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, warned that those eligible for release are likely to include inmates who served earlier sentences for violent crimes “involving assault, firearms, sodomy and even murder.”

“As chairmen of the two congressional committees with oversight of the Department of Justice, it is imperative that we have a complete understanding of the impact the release of these drug traffickers will have on the public safety of our communities,” the letter states.

Supporters of All Drugs Minus Two include the Department of Justice, and organizations representing federal judges and public defenders, police chiefs in large cities and some Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

The Sentencing Commission has cited a prison population that has grown to 32 percent over system capacity as one of the main reasons for reducing prison sentences.

Mike Riggs, a spokesman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization opposed to what it considers excessive prison sentences, replied to Goodlatte’s criticism with the following written statement:

“Prisoners eligible for reduced sentences under all All Drugs Minus Two don’t get anything automatically. Motions for sentence reductions are reviewed by federal prosecutors, who have the right and the power to contest reductions for folks who they believe will pose a threat to safety, as they should. That said, many federal drug prisoners have received overly long sentences, and it’s good public policy to get them back to their families and the workforce while they still have ability to contribute to society.”

Goodlatte’s letter asks Lynch to provide information broken down by specific federal court districts. The request includes the number of offenders eligible to be released and the number of those already scheduled for release; the offenders’ full names and aliases; a description of the offense under which the offender is imprisoned; the length of the current sentence and the amount of time subtracted under All Drugs Minus Two; the offender’s country of citizenship; the offender’s projected release date; and the offender’s criminal history, including previous sentences.

Federal judges are already reviewing motions for sentencing reductions. The U.S. Sentencing Commission released data in June showing decisions made on motions through May 28. The report shows 9,552 applications granted, or 79 percent out of a total of 12,093 decisions.

In the U.S. District Court Western District of Virginia, there were 282 motions granted out of 345, an approval rate of 81.7 percent.

The Western District encompasses the Shenandoah Valley and extends southward to Lee County in the west and Halifax County in the east.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com