Note: This story has been revised to discuss the need for median numbers, in addition to means (the typical measure for "averages"), to get a better understanding of these proposed sentencing changes. UPDATE: The Sentencing Commissioon says it will not provide medians; thus, high-quality information on inmate demographics and sentence lengths are not available. — editor

The most typical drug offender who may be eligible for a federal sentence reduction fits this profile:

  • Hispanic male, 38 years old.
  • No previous criminal record.
  • Probably a U.S. citizen — but possibly not. 
  • Busted for cocaine.
  • Sentenced to five years in federal prison in 2012.
  • May enjoy freedom in 2015, a year or so early.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering making about half of the federal government's 100,000+ drug prisoners eligible to shave some time off their sentences. It will vote July 18 whether to do so.

The 51,141 inmates are a diverse lot. But a new U.S. Sentencing Commission analysis draws a rough portrait of the type of offenders who might catch a break if the commission extends newly approved sentencing guidelines — effective November 1 — to people already doing time. 

The largest share (20,178 total) of the imprisoned drug violators were classified as being in Criminal History Category I, the lowest level of offender. Only 401 were classified as career criminals. 

Most were minorities — 43.5% Hispanic, 30.6 black — reflecting the drug war's racial focus.  Cocaine was the most common drug involved in sentencing — 60% of the time powder cocaine, 40% of the time crack cocaine. Methamphetamine and marijuana came after that.

About 9% of inmates (4,571) would qualify for immediate release on November 1 — if both the Sentencing Commission says they can seek a sentence reduction and the judge in their case agrees. However, most inmates won't enjoy freedom for a year or two. 

Some long-time inmates, having already served decades for drugs, may qualify for big sentence reductions. About 2,500 (or 4.9%) may be eligible to have five years or more shaved off their prison terms. Nearly 500 may qualify for sentence reductions of 10 years or more. On average, sentences would be reduced from 125 months to 102 months.

However, using an average — the mathematical mean — is probably not the best measure. The median (midpoint) or mode (most frequently occurring) are better measurements when large, distortive variations occur in the group being studied. For example, one inmate with a 30-year sentence is equal to 10 inmates with 3-year sentences when computing an average. But you need to focus on the 10 inmates — rather than the one outlier with a 30-year sentence — to get a sentence of the typical effect of the change.

It's not that the "average" (mean) doesn't tell you something worth knowing. Rather, it's that median and mode tell you something more relevant and consistent with what people think of when they ask how the "average" or typical  inmate will be affected. This is why the Census Bureau reports "median household income." Billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett will distort the mean when thrown into  any group of households. 

The Sentencing Commission did not report medians. However, I will ask for this information. It should not be hard to compute. (UPDATE: The Sentencing Commission staff says it won't provide this information.)

The size of these reductions reflect how severe federal drug penalties became following the tragically misnamed Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and how many inmates continue to serve 20, 30, 40-year, even life terms, for non-violent drug offenses. These long stays have helped pushed the prison population from 36,000 in 1985 to 217,000 today. 

Taxpayers would save $2.4 billion (current dollars, net present value) if all the drug sentence reductions were approved, The Clemency Report estimates, based on Bureau of Prison numbers that more than 85,000 prison years would be eliminated.  

The seven-member  Sentencing Commission asked for the demographic analysis, released Tuesday, to understand the potential effect of making its new sentencing guidelines retroactive. Here's what the commission found.

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