Amid debate over sentencing rules, thousands in federal prison set to be released


Thousands of men and women locked up in federal prison for nonviolent drug crimes will be released at the end of this month.

The Washington Post reports about 6,000 inmates are set to get out from Oct. 30 through Nov. 2 – about one-third of those are foreign citizens and are expected to be deported, while the remaining two-thirds go to halfway houses or home confinement, eventually leading to a supervised released.

So why is this happening?

The SparkNotes version: It's part of a broader effort to address America's rising, costly prison population – which many people blame on harsher drug laws put into place decades ago.

The Star Tribune reports 140 of the federal prisoners ordered to be released come from Minnesota prisons.

There are two federal correctional institutions in Minnesota (Sandstones and Waseca), one federal prison camp (Duluth) and one federal medical center (Rochester), according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Here are the nitty gritty details.

The 1st step: New sentencing guidelines

The U.S. Sentencing Commission took the first big step last year.

The commission is an independent agency with the job of establishing sentencing policies, like guidelines determining how severe punishment should be for certain crimes.

In April of 2014, its members voted unanimously to approve shorter federal sentences for many nonviolent drug crimes.

Three months later, the commission then voted (again unanimously) to make those changes retroactive – meaning an offender sentenced under the old, harsher guidelines would be eligible to have their case reviewed by a judge, and possibly be granted an earlier release.

The commission said at the time 46,290 offenders were eligible to have cases reviewed.

The pending release of the 6,000 inmates coming in a few weeks is essentially the first wave, with thousands of more eligible inmates being slowly released in the coming decades, The Atlantic writes.

The Marshall Project, which reports on the criminal justice system, laid out how the prisoners' release will and won't work.

It also notes the 206,000 or so prisoners in state (not federal) facilities because of drug convictions have no such luck; the decision has no bearing on state sentencing guidelines.

The reaction

The upcoming release has been hailed as a positive step by advocates of prison sentencing reform.

Following the Department of Justice announcement, Jesselyn McCurdy with the American Civil Liberties Union said in a release the move was "nothing short of thrilling."

"We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back," she said.

The Washington Post however notes law enforcement officials around the country are concerned the released prisoners may struggle to get jobs, and return to crime.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said earlier this week it had 205, 723 federal inmates through Sept. 30 – that's 8,426 less than one year ago. It's the second straight year that number has gone down, after 34 straight years of increases.

More steps taken

The upcoming release is the latest in a string of recent steps looking to address the federal sentencing system.

Earlier this month, a bill to overhaul federal sentencing was introduced in the U.S. Senate by a group of Republicans and Democrats. The New York Times called it a "bold effort to recast two decades of criminal justice policy." A similar bill is being discussed in the House, though it's not clear if it will match the Senate's proposal.

In July, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 46 people facing long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses, USA Today reported.

Pew Charitable Trusts says sentencing laws for drug crimes enacted in the 1980s led to a huge uptick in locked-up Americans, saying more than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses – up from under 5,000 back in 1980.

And all that comes at a significant cost, with the federal prison system using up more than $6.7 billion a year – that's about one-fourth of all dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.

Despite that, Pew says illegal drug use has climbed, drug prices have gotten cheaper, and recidivism rates (how often an offender gets out and commits a crime again) are basically the same as before those drug laws were enacted – so we're spending more money and putting more people in prison for longer periods, yet not seeing a change in illegal drug use, Pew argues.

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