Back in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the disparities in federal mandatory minimum sentences for powder and crack cocaine. But the act did not address the issue of retroactivity for those who had already been sentenced. Dealing with that issue was left to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The Obama administration has always supported the application of these changes retroactively and former Attorney General Eric Holder testified along those lines to the Commission. Back in July 2014, the Sentencing Commission made their decision.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission decided Friday that nearly 50,000 federal drug offenders currently in prison are eligible for reduced sentences, a move that could flood the nation’s courts and prosecutors with applications for leniency.

By a unanimous vote, the commission made retroactive an earlier change that had lightened potential punishments for most future drug offenders who are sentenced starting in November. Friday’s move extends that change to 46,000 current inmates, allowing them to have their cases reviewed again by a judge.

Sari Horwitz reports on what happened next:

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard testimony from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.

That means that yesterday, there was some huge news from the Justice Department.

The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release…

The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

As Horwitz points out, this is an entirely separate process from President Obama’s Clemency Initiative, and has been in the works since the Fair Sentencing Act initially passed 5 years ago. Justice might not always be as swift as we would like. But it is about to arrive retroactively for thousands over the next year.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.