The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest-ever one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.
The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release.
The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — which reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.
The commission’s action is separate from an effort by President Barack Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative that has resulted in 89 inmates being released early.
The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first step in that process.
“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform.
The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates will be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.
About a third of the inmates being released with a month are undocumented immigrants who will be deported. Because many of those inmates were convicted of crimes that are significant legal offenses, Obama is unlikely to be criticized as sharply for their release by those who have objected to past deportation decisions by the administration.
The upcoming releases are part of a shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing. Along with the commission’s action, the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.
The Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which they heard testimony from former attorney general Eric Holder, federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.
Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.
The policy change is referred to as “Drugs Minus Two.” Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group.
The sentencing panel’s change decreased the value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of drug or the amount.
An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners’ sentences under the change.
“Even with the Sentencing Commission’s reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said.
In each case, inmates must petition a judge who decides whether to grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 70 sentence reductions per week, Justice Department officials said. Some of the inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.
“Today’s announcement is nothing short of thrilling because it carries justice,” Jesselyn McCurdy, a senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said about Tuesday’s action. “Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war. People of color have had to bear the brunt of these misguided and cruel policies. We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back.”
News of the early releases raised some concerns among law enforcement officials across the country who are grappling with an increase in homicides. Their fear is that many of the freed convicts will be unable to get jobs and will return to crime.
Ronald E. Teachman, who was the police chief in South Bend, Ind., until last Wednesday, said that what inmates were convicted of and what they actually did were rarely the same.
He said that prisoners who were released after receiving job skills and other assimilation training often succeeded. But, he said, that rarely occurs — even in the federal system.
“People come out of prison hardened and angry and more likely to offend,” said Teachman, now an executive with ShotSpotter, a company that promotes a system for detecting gunfire.
The U.S. population has grown by about a third since 1980, but the federal prison population has increased by about 800 percent and federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity, the Justice Department said.
The New York Times contributed to this report.