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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is urging the U.S. Sentencing Commission to approve a measure that would make potentially thousands of non-violent drug offenders now serving time in federal prison eligible for reduced sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who supported the commission's April action to cut prison time for certain future drug offenses, is supporting a proposal set for a vote next month that would apply the changes retroactively for current inmates.

The commission has estimated that full retro-activity could apply to more than 50,000 of the more than 215,000 inmates in the overcrowded federal prison system. But the Justice Department is advocating for more limited eligibility, about 20,000.

"Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible,'' Holder said Tuesday. "Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences."

The attorney general's statement is an extension of a series of criminal justice proposals announced since last August aimed in part at cutting the federal prison population, which requires about one-quarter of the Justice budget to maintain.

The commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for federal offenders, considered testimony today on the matter from several witnesses, including Georgia U.S. Attorney Sally Yates and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuel who formally delivered the Justice endorsement.

."While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary,'' Yates told the commission. "And this creates a negative impact upon both the public's confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources."

Yates noted that half the federal prison population is serving time for drug offenses. And 55% of those are serving sentences of more than 10 years.

Although the commission has indicated that 51,000 inmates could be eligible, Yates said the amended guidelines should apply to a more limited number so that existing resources would not be overwhelmed in considering and processing early releases. Yates said that up to 60,000 inmates could file applications under the guidelines, if approved.

"Not only would 60,000 petitions divert prosecutors, judges, probation officers from their normal caseloads,'' Yates said, "but the thorough, individualized assessment required of each petition will also add to this burden in a significant way.''

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the Justice Department was using "arbitrary'' measures for limiting access.

"Efficiency shouldn't trump justice,'' Stewart said. "We shouldn't spend billions keeping 30,000 drug offenders locked up for too long just because they don't tick the right boxes on the Justice Department's arbitrary checklist."

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