Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has pushed for reductions in drug sentences. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of prisoners serving time for federal drug offenses will be eligible to seek early release beginning next year. The United States Sentencing Commission, which voted in April to reduce the penalties for most drug crimes, voted unanimously on Friday to make that change retroactive. It will apply to nearly 50,000 federal inmates who are serving time under the old rules.

The Sentencing Commission said the move would help ease prison overcrowding and reduce prison spending, which makes up about a third of the Justice Department’s budget. The change comes amid a bipartisan effort to roll back the harshest penalties set during the height of the drug war. Civil rights groups and prison-reform advocates cheered the decision.

In testimony before Congress and the Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has pushed for reductions in drug sentences. Highlighting racial disparities, he has cast prison policy as a civil rights issue.'

The Sentencing Commission change takes effect on Nov. 1 unless Congress votes to overrule it. Prisoners would not be eligible for early release until a year from then.

The commission estimated that, on average, eligible prisoners could have their sentences reduced by about two years and will have served about nine years in prison. The thousands of early releases will not happen immediately. New prisoners will become eligible each year as they approach the end of their sentences. Each request for early release will be reviewed by a federal judge.

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