The original amendment unanimously passed in April adjusted the guidelines that federal judges reference when sentencing defendants. When a mandatory minimum sentence does not apply to a case and bind a judge to an exact sentence, the judge turns to another set of guidelines known as the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines use the same extreme criteria that are the basis for mandatory minimum drug sentences. These two sentencing recommendations are the reason the federal prison population ballooned by almost 800 percent since 1980.
The retroactive part of this proposal will not automatically open cell doors for the eligible inmates. While an estimated 8000 inmates would be eligible to go before a judge immediately when the change goes into effect in 2015, the remainder would become eligible to seek those sentencing reductions over a period of years depending on when they were sentenced and the length of their original sentence. All eligible inmates will have to appear before a judge. The judge would decide whether to grant them all or some of the sentencing reduction in the new guidelines. If all the judges granted the full reduction, inmates would see an average of 23 months shaved off their sentences, or 18.4 percent of their full sentence, according to Commission estimates.
This latest proposal does not alter the fundamental set of guidelines. Congress will have to reform the entire set of sentencing guidelines. There are two bipartisan bills to reform these laws are still pending in both houses of Congress.