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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.

About 20,000 inmates of the more than 215,000 in the overcrowded federal prison system could be eligible for lesser terms under terms of the proposal.

"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 endorsement 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, is expected today to hear testimony on the proposed changes. The Justice Department endorsement is being delivered by Georgia U.S. Attorney Sally Yates and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuel.

"We believe that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders and that has resulted in significant prison overcrowding,'' Yates said in prepared remarks for the hearing.

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