Story highlights

Justice Department aims to make some current prisoners eligible for reduced sentences

AG Eric Holder aims to cut prison population, loosen sentencing for some drug crimes

Plan would apply to some nonviolent prisoners without "significant" criminal histories

Some conservatives back Holder, but law enforcement, GOP lawmakers criticize plan

Washington CNN  — 

As many as 20,000 federal prisoners could see their sentences shortened under a new proposal by the Justice Department.

The department made its pitch Tuesday before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make some current prisoners retroactively eligible for reduced sentences. The commission voted in April to reduce drug sentences for future nonviolent offenders.

Sally Yates, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, presented the Justice Department’s proposal to the commission Tuesday. Attorney General Eric Holder plans to discuss the issue at an event later Tuesday.

The department estimates the change would benefit up to 9% of the federal prison population of nearly 217,000. Not all prisoners who applied for the reduced sentences would receive them.

The change is part of Holder’s “Smart on Crime” efforts. The attorney general, who has said he wants to stay in office until late this year, is seeking to reduce prison population and loosen mandatory sentencing rules for nonviolent drug crimes. He often cites data showing that with only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has nearly a quarter of the planet’s prisoners.

The Justice Department proposal, set to be voted on next month, would reduce sentences by about 23 months on average for those already in prison and who qualify.

It would apply to prisoners without “significant” criminal histories, and whose crimes didn’t involve weapons or violence.

“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,” Holder was expected to say Tuesday, according to prepared remarks released by the Justice Department.

Holder has won support from conservatives, including Sen. Rand Paul and some Republican governors, who view mandatory minimum laws as a federal government overreach. But he also faces pushback from some Republican lawmakers and from some rank-and-file members of law enforcement.

Among the objections: The administration is making changes without congressional approval, and the changes reverse laws that many credit with historical crime rate reductions in the past decade.

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